Following the tragic death of championship leader Jochen Rindt at Monza a fortnight earlier, his Lotus team arrived in the United States with a re-worked car and newly promoted Emerson Fittipaldi as lead driver. Rindt's lead was such that only Ferrari's Jacky Ickx could overhaul him, but to do so, he needed to win the final two rounds of the season. Fittipaldi's victory at Watkins Glen ended Ickx's hopes, and meant that Rindt became the first and, to date, only posthumous world champion.
Lotus' No. 2 driver John Miles had walked away from Formula One after Rindt's death, so Sweden's rising star Reine Wisell was brought in to replace him. Pole position went to Jacky Ickx with Jackie Stewart alongside him on the front row and Fittipaldi sharing the second row with the BRM of Pedro Rodriguez.
Stewart streaked into the lead at the start with Rodriguez grabbing second ahead of Ickx and Clay Regazzoni. Fittipaldi had a slow start and slipped back to eighth, but as people ahead of him pitted and retired, he gradually moved up the field, finding himself in fourth at the half-way stage.
On the 57th lap, Ickx headed for the pits with a fuel leak, scuppering any slim chance he had of taking the world title. Out in front Stewart appeared in total control until an oil leak forced him to retire on lap 83, leaving Rodriguez in the lead, 20 seconds ahead of Fittipaldi. With only seven laps to go, Rodriguez ran out of fuel and had to make an unscheduled pit stop, handing victory to Fittipaldi. Rodriguez rejoined the race to finish second, while Wisell came in an impressive third on his debut.
It was an emotional win for Fittipaldi and the entire Lotus team and was a fitting tribute to Rindt. Stewart, speaking for everyone involved in Formula One, said; "We are all pleased for Rindt's family. It is not a great comfort but the crown is a tribute to him as a man."