Green Smoke

Written By: Joel  Reitman

Green Smoke Joel Reitman PO Box 528 Peconic, NY 11958 631-765-2321 Blue smoke once filled the air, and finely tuned engines once growled and crackled. This was the scene at ‘The Bridge,’ a race track situated among the sand hills of Bridgehampton, New York. Once a race track of international fame, it is now shuttered, passed over by the rush to build expensive houses and bright green golf courses. This iconic racing circuit is a generation or more removed from where I am now parked. I sit here in Bridgehampton National Banks’ parking lot, on Main Road in Cutchogue, New York. I am in my fifty-year-old classic car. I turn the key, and it spews a puff of smoke, emits a low growl, then roars to life. I am waiting for the start of the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. The1965 Ford Mustang convertible, its crisp vinyl seats embossed with the pony trademark, is a legend of the auto world. The entire car is a reminder of the ’60’s – a prancing chrome horse in the grill, gleaming air scoops on each flank, and a center fuel filler cap between six strips of red lights, two on each side, both outlined in bright chrome. The car’s long hood, short rear deck, and cloth top speak of speed, sport, and open-air cruising. Here in the bank’s parking lot, I fidget in the drivers seat as I wait, first for the pipers, and then for the green helium-filled balloons to float along before me. My wife, Anne, sits next to me, casually petting Bailey, our miniature schnauzer. Once my Uncle Arthur’s Levittown to Hicksville commuter car, the Mustang convertible is now faithfully restored. It goes with me to car shows, beaches, short rides, and parades like this one. Race cars of all sizes and shapes came to the upscale hamlet of Bridgehampton, to compete at the internationally famous race track. There, the start of many automobile races, was just across Peconic Bay, a short distance from Cutchogue. Drivers of international reputation, along with race car manufacturers from Europe, Asia, and North America once descended in Bridgehampton. Designed in the early ’50’s to be one of the fastest race circuits in the world, Bridgehampton held true to its reputation until it’s demise in 1999. Although no physical trace of The Bridgehampton Road Circuit remains, the rumbling and gurgling engines, blue gasoline smoke, and wailing tires, still hang in the air of memory. The entrance on Millstone Road is chained, and the gravel entrance road in ruts. The sponsor’s name on the bridge over the track is faded by years of neglect. Rust creeps into the metal of the buildings and stands, weeds push through the softened macadam roadway. Soft beige sand has given way to plush green sod, and the brick garages demolished in favor of residences. I was fortunate, I once raced a Formula Vee at The Bridge. I enjoyed the thrill, the friendship, the competition, all now gone. Most often, the races were seemingly lightly attended. It was not until the finish, ten laps later, when the spectators emerged and pushed against the guard rails to get a better view of a driver they might have recognized, of a car they might desire to own. Bridgehampton was a place to display your prowess at handling a motorized vehicle, and show your favorite number on the car’s side. There I would sit, cramped inside a tubular race car, a three inch wide aircraft style harness in place to keep me safe, a small thin seat, and three instruments: tachometer, temperature, and oil pressure gauges. This was a car designed by a mathematical formula to be as much like others cars in the same race; the same ratio of engine, to steering, and suspension, the whole thing held together not with a Volkswagon chassis, but a tubular frame, covered with a sleek fiberglass racing body, all weighing no more than 850 pounds. As I pressed the red starter button, the roar of engine would come alive, some internal gurgling, and then a throaty exhaust boomed out. I sat among others, poised for the track ahead. My number 49, was displayed on both sides, black figures on a white circle against an orange and blue background. The race track is a place to wave the checkered banner at the finish and share your victory with others while consuming uncertain amounts of hard liquid refreshment. You displayed the winners trophy as a reminder of the difficulty piloting a Volkswagon-powered race car over a twisty and sandy race course. As all of Bridgehampton Race Circuit sits decaying, overgrown with condominiums, and golf courses; my Mustang, a relic of muscle cars and street races, sits alive, idling, and gurgling, along a present day parade route. It reminds onlookers of a time too soon forgotten. Here, Cutchogue is alive with retail stores and Main Road is filled with cars, bicyclists and tourists. The Mustang’s glossy hood reflects the faces of people more obsessed with funny green hats than vintage cars. This is St. Patrick’s Day, when people gather to celebrate heritage, display flags, banners, buttons, and play screeching music. They rejoice, consuming thick slices of soda bread, sloshing it all down with dark foamy beer. Here in Cutchogue old and new friends bring their classic cars together in a parking lot to compare, to trade stories, to be with like-minded people. Bridgehampton was that way for me and my friends. We wore our stories and lives on our fire retardant Nomex racing suits all capped down under our protective racing hemet. Now as the parade begins, I slowly motor down the Main Road. Crowds of people rush from the curb to the yellow lines to get a closer look, and perhaps a better photograph of a car so many of them once owned, or admired. A car that begat a generation of sporty, pony cars for just cruising along the main streets of America. We chat with onlookers excited by the presence of our car, one that reminds them of their past. Others stroll along or sit along the sidewalks waving green and orange flags, wearing heavy knitted woolen sweaters, sporting silly saying buttons, and most every one keeping their heads warm with one outlandish hat after another. Then at the end of the parade-or the race-exhaust smoke gone, folding chairs put away, cars back on trailers, the anxious traffic moves away in the haze of the lowering sun, but people’s faces stand firm in time.