The first races in Watkins Glen International were initiated by Cameron Argetsinger, whose family had a summer home in the area. With Chamber of Commerce approval and SCCA sanction, the first Watkins Glen Grand Prix took place in 1948 on a 6.6-mile (10.6 km) course over local public roads. For the first few years, the races passed through the heart of the town with spectators lining the sidewalks, but after a car left the road in the 1952 race, killing one spectator and injuring several others, the race was moved to a new location on a wooded hilltop southwest of town. The original 6.6-mile (10.6 km) course is listed in the New York State register and National Register of Historic Places as the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Course, 1948-1952.
The new 4.6-mile (7.4 km) course for 1953 also used existing roads. The Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corporation was formed to manage spectators, parking and concessions. This arrangement lasted three years before a 2.35-mile (3.78 km) permanent race course was constructed on 550 acres (2.2 km²), overlapping part of the previous course. It was designed by Bill Milliken to be a smaller version of the original street circuit and laid out by several engineering professors from nearby Cornell University. Along with the annual SCCA race, the track hosted its first professional race (NASCAR Grand National Division) in 1957 and became truly international when the Formula Libre race attracted some of the best road racing drivers in the world, including Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss, Phil Hill and Dan Gurney from 1958 through 1960.