(Lead photo credit: Fox Sports) – Emerson Fittipaldi finished fourth at the 1974 US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International Raceway. By doing so he managed to collect a Formula One championship, arguably the most hallowed honor in all of motorsports. Unfortunately for him, his win was upstaged by a burning Greyhound bus, 12 torched cars, dozens of people wounded by flying bottles and rocks, lots of half naked people, and several acres of mud. A group of people known as the Bogladytes owned the headlines that weekend and a muddy section of the facility known as The Bog was their hellish Mad Max-like kingdom. 1974 wasn’t the first time something burned in the Bog but it was spectacularly the last. The story of The Bog and its inferno of an apex in 1974 is something that many people have forgotten, or like me, never knew about in the first place. Thankfully, I hang out with drag racers.
At a gathering the other night of friends from the drag racing community in the local area, some of the guys were swapping stories of the shenanigans that they had found themselves in over the years at different events. Somehow the 1970s came up and the stories began to roll. Two of the guys started to talk about their yearly trips to Watkins Glen International Raceway back then, particularly for the US Grand Prix and the subject of The Bog came up. By the time they were done my eyes were bugging out of my head and the most insane part of all of it was that the stuff they were telling me was true and the evidence is all laid out for you below.
What the heck was The Bog?
In the simplest of terms, The Bog was a big open spectator area at Watkins Glen where people could pay like $15 bucks to spend the whole weekend watching the race. It was technically outside of the race track so it was kind of a hike from the pits (or “paddock” as the high faultin road racer types call it) through a tunnel and into the massive open area. There happened to be a drainage stream running through it which was the needed element to turn an otherwise pastoral scene into a muddy, sloppy mess the likes of Woodstock.
This photo is one of the few that gives a wide angle look at The Bog without something actively burning or being destroyed in the background. Clearly something HAS burned as there’s the charred remains of cars or the bus back there, but here’s what the physical scene was like.
When did this place turn into a giant pit of insanity?
Like most stuff in the world, things at The Bog were a gradual escalation that if graphed, basically went vertical. Have you ever seen a rocket launch? The first 500 feet you are wondering if the thing will have the steam to actually fly away, but once it accelerates to a couple thousand miles per hour, it is gone in a flash. Such was the story of The Bog.
By the accounts we could find, things started to get hairy in the area by the late 1960s when the cultural tides turned and rebellion was in the air, especially among people in their 20s. It was a time of social upheaval, Woodstock, free love, cheap drugs, and on any given weekend it was not uncommon to hear about a concert or other event that had gotten rowdy. The Bog was a product of the times. By the early 1970s, things started to get a little more heavy duty.
“Running the bog” is likely how the madness escalated over the years. Simply put “running the bog” was taking your vehicle, no matter what it was and trying to muscle it thought the ever deepening slop that formed over the weekend. Made it through and you got cheered. Got stuck and you were pulled from your car so it could be burned to the ground. Not kidding.
Kevin Martin of CurbsideClassics.com took these photos 1972 – CLICK HERE TO SEE MORE
One of the stories that the guys at dinner talked about (which Martin backs up in his piece) was the fact that outside of the burning cars, people would bring in loads of magnesium Volkswagen engine blocks and set them on fire. The brilliant white flames of the burning engine blocks provided a great place for drunken maniacs to turn themselves into Evel Knievel to wow their friends in the crowd.
The 1973 race was apparently about as bad as the 1972 race and likely a little worse as the crowds that came back already knew they could get away with murder and those coming to the race and staying in The Bog were showing up geared to destroy and participate in the debauchery because of the either real or conflated stories of their pals.
1974: A Brazilian Bus, a dozen burning cars, the last straw for The Bog
Remember that rocket analogy? Consider the 1974 US Grand Prix the second stage boosters firing. This was the (probably bad turn of phrase here) high point for the complete lawlessness in The Bog and it would ultimately be its undoing as well. Before we get into the nuts, bolts, and molotov cocktails of 1974 let’s address one question about The Bog. How did it last so long? The short answer, which is usually the right answer: Money.
The Bog was a goldmine for Watkins Glen because thousands upon thousands of people would pay their fee for the weekend to stay in an area that literally cost them nothing. Sure there was some crazy stuff happening, but you cannot really damage grass. Yeah they had to invest a few days cleaning up and having burned up cars and motorcycles hauled off, but that was just a cost of doing business and to consider it any other way is non-sensical. It wasn’t like they were burning bathrooms down, setting Watkins Glen’s cars ablaze, or harming their ability to hold the race, right? Did people get hurt? Sure they did but people got killed on the race track. In 1973 and 1974 racers died at Watkins Glen during the US Grand Prix. François Cevert met his untimely end during a horrible crash in ’73 and Austrian Helmuth Koinigg was decapitated in a grizzly crash during the 1974 contest.
I can find no reports, official or otherwise of anyone actually dying in the bog or because of something that happened there. By the sounds of the stories, people lost years off of their lives but the people who came left with a heartbeat as best I can tell. Why is that shocking? According to guys that were there people would be knocked down like “bowling pins” by flying bottles, rocks, and whatever else people were either heaving into crowds or at something which was burning…and something was always burning in the bog.
In short we can blame Emerson Fittipaldi for the death of The Bog. See, it was he who was having a killer season in F1 and was in need of only a mediocre performance to lock up the title. Formula One has always been a global sport and a global sport who’s fans travel globally so when the Brazilian hero was getting ready to make history, Brazilians wanted to be there.
Flying into New York City and chartering a Greyhound coach to take them “upstate” to the track, we’re thinking that excitement was high and that the rural sprawling landscape was probably different than what the load of 40 passengers were used to seeing at home in Brazil.
While history does not specifically tell us what day this event happened, we can surmise it was on Saturday. The bus brimming with bucolic Brazilians was at the track and as the passengers dismounted the machine, so did the driver. Unlocked, unattended, and apparently with the keys in the ignition the giant silver coach bus got the attention of the Bogladytes and a plot was hatched. Fueled by booze and god knows what for chemicals, the bus was stolen, bounced off every car that it could find and then driven straight into the belly of The Bog all the while being pelted with rocks, bottles, and whatever else people could heave. Just for fun, of course.
When the Greyhound was good and stuck the guys who perpetrated the crime abandoned ship because the rocks and bottles were instantly replaced with molotov cocktails which quickly smashed out the windows and ignited the interior of the bus.
Here’s the scene:
The clouds of black smoke could be seen for miles and exactly zero people responded to extinguish the fire. Can you blame them? Hours later after the thing burned itself out, the crowds rolled it over onto its side, apparently hacked the fuel tanks open and got the party started again with the help of a Dodge that got stuck in the mud and could not escape. It basically became kindling. Some reports say a dozen cars were burned on Saturday night alone, some say that it was closer to 20.
Greyhound eventually sent another bus to aid the Brazilians. Imagine the call the bus driver had to make to the office.
While we’re talking about the automotive destruction, there’s a book that could be written about the culture of The Bog. Old photos reveal dozens, maybe hundreds of Ryder trucks on the property. Those became the hot ticket to basically turn into an apartment on wheels. More waterproof than a tent, a place to escape the sun, and cheaper than a hotel, it was a win all around. We cannot imagine what those trucks smelled like by the end of the weekend.
Obviously after the 1974 display, the track had to do something.
Thanks for the memories and roll the ‘dozers –
While the F1 race actually continued at Watkins Glen until about 1980, The Bog was effectively gone after the 1974 fiasco. The drainage ditch was either bulldozed over or captured in pipes and then bulldozed over. Security was added and while partying was certainly part of the program it was absolutely nothing like it had been and that was the direction the area continued to take until the race as discontinued a few years later.
There are some great photos on the web of the whole mad house and we’re going to throw some links to them below.
If I can add one last bit of commentary here. If this happened in 2016 or 2017 it would cause such a pubic outcry, such a disturbance of life, that it would literally make national news. We’d be hearing about the decline of western civilization for weeks, we’d be hearing from people who would want to do whatever they could to prevent this from happening again, going so far as to shut down the track, racing, etc. It would be horrible and cause for hand wringing, Facebook posts, social media outrage, and all the rest of the junk that permeates life today. It never made the national news in 1974. It may not have made the local news in 1974.
There was no social media. There were photos on film you got developed two weeks after the race and laughed about with your buddies. Now I am not saying this stuff should happen, should be encouraged, or should be condoned but this did happen and that’s why we’re telling the story. Stealing a bus and burning to the ground for fun is completely mental but there’s a definite element of entertainment in there.
The world was a simpler place in 1974. Maybe not a better place, but a simpler one. They burned buses in Watkins Glen, they “burned the shitters” at Englishtown at the NHRA race, and they did unspeakable things in the Snake Pit at Indy. A different time for sure.
So there’s the tale of The Bog. Incredible, right?