By Claire Walla
These days, it’s hard to imagine anything speeding down Montauk Highway in Bridgehampton.
But, there was once a time when cars gripped the pavement at top speeds; there was even a time when they hugged the dirt roads that cut through town, racing past cornfields and around the monument on Montauk Highway in an attempt to be the first to reach the finish line.
While top speeds are no longer top priority, the essence of Bridgehampton’s racing history will be celebrated this Saturday as the Bridgehampton Historical Society hosts the 2010 Bridgehampton Auto Poker Rally, bringing such cars as a 1959 Austin Healy, a 1932 Model 54 Sport Phaeton, a 1927 Bentley and a 1915 Model T Ford back to the streets.
“This was an integral part of the community,” said BHS Communications Director Sally Spanburgh of Bridgehampton’s racing history — which is why BHS has worked for the past 15 years to make this past come to life.
Participants will receive the route the morning of the rally, as well as a booklet with Hamptons history. The course, which is kept secret until just before participants start their engines, will take racers through 55 scenic miles on the East End, and include stops at several historic sites along the way.
At each stop, participants will be asked to answer a trivia question that pertains to local history, and at some they’ll receive a playing card, which they can used in the poker tournament that will directly follow the race. (Drivers can win the event by either having the best poker hand, or by correctly answering the most trivia questions.)
“It’s a leisurely day,” Spanburgh said of the event, which this year will not have drivers competing against the clock. “Because our version [of a rally] is routed in racing heritage.”
In fact, according to Earl Gandel, this racing history is what first put Bridgehampton on the map.
Local racing gained popularity in 1915 in conjunction with the Bridghampton Fireman’s Carnival. The annual even brought an array of 30-horsepower vehicles —Fords, Chevrolets, Essexes, Renaults and Pope-Hartfords — all topping 50-mph speeds and kicking up dust along a 35-mile loop that stretched from Halsey Lane to Ocean Road.
The car climate died down after 1921, but picked up major steam after World War II, when many G.I.’s came back from their service abroad with trendy European sports cars. While the first street race, held in 1949, attracted an impressive 10,000 spectators, by the time of the last race in 1953, crowds had increased to four times that amount.
But, these numbers were starting to get unmanageable for a small town, not to mention a course marked only by bales of hay. So, after four years, local officials ultimately banned racing on public roadways.
However, the sport still had momentum and ultimately its popularity gave way to the 600-acre Bridgehampton Race Track, which really catapulted the area into the international racing arena.
Gandel, who ran the track for 13 years, said the course was one of the most sought after in the world. A native of the west coast, Gandel said that when he saw it for the first time “it was like visiting the Taj Mahal!” BRT was designed with the best elements of three of Europe’s finest tracks: Zandvoort in Holland, Spa Francorchamps in Belgium and Brands Hatch in England. Plus, the locale offered a 180-degree vista of the Peconic Bay. It attracted the best names in the sport, like Mario Andretti and Phil Hill.
For various reasons, the track closed in the 1980s; but, thanks to Gandel and others, the road rally continues to celebrate its legendary past.
This year’s course will be set by Howard Kroplick and his 1909 Alco 6 Racer, a.k.a. Black Beast, the very car that won the Vanderbilt Cup here in Bridgehampton in 1915. The Beast will lead drivers on a 4-mile loop around Bridghampton before participants set-off on their scenic tour of East End history.
The day will end with a drive-in movie to be projected just behind the historical society. While the tour itself is restricted to cars made pre-1960, all autos are invited to pull in for the film, “The Green Helmet,” which will commence at sun down.