Once Upon a Sand Dune
Once Upon A Sand Dune
by Joel Reitman
June 5, 2017
I picked up my new Austin Mini Cooper S in London and spent the summer of 1966 touring the twisty roads of Europe and driving the famous Nuremberg Ring. When I came home, I was eager to see what I had learned. I read in Suffolk Life there was a time trial at Bridgehampton race track.
My friend Bill asked me, “Have you been back to the Bridge?”
“You know Bill, I heard you can’t even get into the place, all the old entrances have been dismantled. For all I know, the whole place is in ruins. The best road track in the U. S. Gone.”
So I headed out East, through Southampton and Water Mill, eventually turning north off Montauk Highway at the church on Scuttlehole Road and then onto the track.
“Not so fast my speed racer friend.” Remember the exit on Millstone Road?”
“Wasn’t that for the ambulance? We used the main gate. The spectator gate – with the booths. Then it was over the rickety bridge. Every time I drove the van and trailer over, I thought the whole rig, race car, everything was going to land right in the middle of the track.”
“Yes, it was spooky. But I avoided it by getting a ride in the ambulance with my doctor dad. Never a pretty sight riding to the hospital with an injured race care driver. But I was young and the sirens were exciting.”
“Bill, you’ve told me that story how many times? Let me tell you one you haven’t heard.”
“This one was my introduction to race car driving. My friend Tom, an instructor, was in a MGB that flipped. He wanted to get back on the track and forget about the incident – I obliged. We belted into the mini. I borrowed a helmet, Tom had his own fully decorated (STP, Sunoco, Castrol, etc) helmet. We roared off under the Chevron bridge. Then carefully through Millstone turn and Echo Valley. It was pedal down again through the back straight and slowly through the last turn and up the main straight and back into pit lane. I was hooked. Although the mini was great, I needed a race car, at least a car that looked like a race car.”
The Bridgehampton Race Circuit came into being in 1957 after automobile racing was banned on the streets of Bridgehampton and Sagaponack. A small group of auto enthusiasts formed the Bridgehampton Road Races Corporation. The group included: Henry Austin Clark Jr. (Owner of the LI Auto Museum), Henry Tredwell, Alfred Momo ( Race car team manager) and Dr. William Graf, among others. All – well known race car enthusiasts. The “Bridge” was also host to world class race car drivers. Among them were Richard Petty (NASCAR champion), Phil Hill (Formula one champion), Mark Donahue ( Sports Car champion), and Roger Penske (car and owner). Major car manufacturers came entering their products: Ford with a Shelby Cobra, Chevrolet with Jim Hall’s Chapparal, Ferrari GTO’s and Lotus sports racers. Besides being host to professional races, the Bridge hosted amateur racers from the Sports Car of America and the Eastern Motor Racing Association. These weekend warriors came to fine tune their skills at one of the most challenging race courses in the world
“Okay. I heard that one before.
Bill, here’s the story when I really learned to race, at Bridgehampton of course. It was the 5th race of my second season.”
“Is this one where you lost a wheel, twice?”
“No, not this one. This was a race where four of us moved like cars coupled together as on railroad tracks. Lap after lap, no one could get around another. Our cars, our skills, all well matched. On the sixth lap, as we headed out of Echo Valley, the car in front if me – now inches from my front wheels – suddenly disappeared! Where? I couldn’t look back, another turn loomed ahead. At the back stretch, I eased up a bit, and thought, oh, yes, he must have spun out. On next lap I spotted him as a dark shadow atop a sand dune. The bright sun silhouetted him as he waved ferociously. Yes, Bill he did spin out, and he was all right. And I learned a lot about racing at that moment”
“I think you have told me that one about ten times. But you never
told me where you finished.”
“Third. It was one of my better races.”
Because the second hand Formula Vee I acquired was outdated, my first season was mundane, no trophies, no spinouts, and no crashes. But, that day I learned a few things about racing. Safety first; all equipment must be in excellent shape. Be familiar with the track; walk it, get to know the layout, locate each apex. And be bold – stay close to the car in front, but not too close because open wheeled cars have no bumpers.
That second season was exciting. I was competitive and always among the leaders. I raced for two more years, then I sold the Vee. The track was going downhill, the bridge over the straight creaked even more and the concession stand, garage, all gone. The place was not the same. Bridgehampton Race Circuit was overcome by restrictive zoning laws and the track was declared non-conforming, restricting any improvements. But the real death sentence was the noise regulation spurred on by the growth of nearby residences. Eventually the Southampton police were monitoring the exhaust noise. The Bridgehampton Race Circuit closed up in 1998. A golf course and homes were to replace what was soon to be on the National Register of historic places.
“But have you been back? You’ve gotta see it. They even saved some of the track.”
“Yes Bill, I was back there a few weeks ago. I turned in at the ambulance entrance. What a shock. The place is transformed into a country club, but an unfinished one. Quiet, not like the days of NASCAR and Ca-Am racing. I wonder what’s really going to happen there. Only a few homes, an empty and treeless golf course. A waste of a great property.”
My friend Bill was right about the other entrance. One fall day my wife and I decided to take a look at the old place. The main entrance on Millstone Road was barred by a chain link fence, the entrance driveway had become a gravely mess. We drove on down the road a bit and came to the old ambulance entrance. We entered on what was the bottom of Millstone turn. We were going up hill – opposite the race direction. I drove past an old flag station and a crumbling billboard sign toward the straight. Near the top, the Chevron bridge stood out. Though a bit worn and faded – its form was like a memorial to all who passed over and under its rickety beams. I drove under the bridge and parked at the top, alongside the old guard rail, where the start – finish line would have been. It was the same guard rail we used to sit on and watch our friends race. It was now rusting and sagging, but the the memories of the race cars were there, still loud. The excitement echoed in the wind. I got out and sat on the rail. Looking straight up the hill – the timing booth was gone, replaced by an angular modern golf club house. A strange structure for a place that is on the National Register of Historic places.
I eventually got up from the guard rail and turned around to the north. Gone were the cars and the buildings, just green grass and little numbered flags. The infield was deserted but the view was still one of majesty, the waters north of Sag Harbor were in clear view over the pine trees. It was a magnificent sight just as the Bridge always was and always will be to me and those who raced, flagged, governed and crewed here in the dunes of Bridgehampton.
Note: Bill is the son of Dr. William Graf, Treasurer of BRRC. Me, I was President of the Long Island Sports Car Association and a founding member of the Eastern Motor Racing Association, and a weekend sports car racer. I finished third at least once more.