When I got to the garage area at Watkins Glen last month, I wasn’t sure if I had the right weekend.

American Endurance Racing got started two years ago with the idea of providing a more straightforward (read: less ridiculous) brand of grassroots racing than what you’d find at 24 Hours of LeMons or ChumpCar, and, while the racing was immediately cleaner, the paddock has always been unavoidably filled with the refugees: those costumed beaters with sad, mashed-up fenders and toothless grills. Cars that have historically made up most of the AER field, with a sprinkling of straighter and shinier machines running up front.

This year, as I threaded my way around the garage looking for parking, I was confused by what I saw. The crumpled BMW e30s were replaced by newer, mean looking e46s. S197 Mustangs with wings attached for downforce instead of irony. A particularly brutal no-holds-barred C5 Corvette. Real race cars. Nice trailers. Serious shit. There was even a hauler full of Porsches with a hot dog brand on the side that I’ve seen competing at IMSA races. What is going on? Is this the new AER?

Hard to say. The huge turnout may have something to do with it being the opening race of the season, not to mention the chance to be among the first to race on new asphalt at such a famous track. But either way, it was an exciting weekend for grassroots racers and everyone involved, and AER is definitely growing. We’ll see what the field looks like at in Massachusetts this weekend, when AER hits Palmer Motorsports Park, a much lesser known yet extremely challenging circuit.

Here are some of my favorite shots from AER’s 2016 opener at Watkins Glen. If you want to see more, download full size, or buy some prints, head on over to my archive on dwburnett.com.

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