By Mara Certic
The sleek and polished vintage cars that will roll into Bridgehampton this Saturday not only commemorate the 22nd year of the Vintage Automobile Poker Rally, but will also mark the centenary of car racing in the hamlet.
This Saturday, October 3, several dozen cars, dating from 1915 all the way to 1969 will steer into the parking lot of the Bridgehampton Museum for a judged show, parade, historic trivia quiz and rally as part of the annual event.
But while this fundraiser for the Bridgehampton Historical Society only dates back to the early 1990s, the hamlet has a long history of racing, which all began with the very first race back in the summer of 1915.
“In 1915, the Bridgehampton Fire Department, as part of their summer fair, included car racing right on Main Street,” John Eilertson, the society’s executive director historical society, explained this week.
The low-speed race continued to feature in the firemen’s fair until about 1921, Mr. Eilertson said, when for some reason it was dropped. The Main Street scrambles weren’t seen again in Bridgehampton until well after the Great Depression and World War II, when the races were revived in 1949. By that point, nearly 30 years later, much had changed—including how fast the cars could drive.
“At that point they were going 100 miles per hour down the street,” Mr. Eilertson said. The races continued in the East End town for a few years, drawing crowds of tens of thousands of spectators out to the sleepy hamlet, until tragedy struck during the 1953 races when a driver was killed during a practice run and four spectators and another driver were injured in accidents over the weekend.
“A hurtling Jaguar, which went off the road and struck a group of spectators before coming to rest upside down, abruptly ended the fifth annual Bridgehampton Sports Car Races on Saturday. Following the accident, B.J. Corrigan, general chairman of the program, declared the remainder of the races “cancelled.” read an article in The Sag Harbor Express on May 28, 1953.
According to the story, the group of viewers were in a “non-spectator zone” when the driver of the Jaguar lost control near Schoolhouse turn on Bridge Lane.
“Only a few hours earlier, in the second race of the day, Tommy Luck of Exton, Pa., driving a Siata, hit the hay bales piled at Schoolhouse Turn and his car turned over,” the article reads.
“On Friday, in warm-up spins for the races, the course saw its first fatality as Bob Wilder of Palmer, Mass., was killed when his car was overturned.”
Following the Bridgehampton accidents and a fatality up in Watkins Glen, New York State outlawed street racing later that year, but still that wasn’t the end for the vehicular sport in the area. A few short years later the world famous Bridgehampton Race Circuit opened up where the Bridge golf club sits today. The race track on Millstone Road stayed open until the 1990s, but its heyday was the 1960s and ’70s, said Mr. Eilertson, when thousands would show up for races.
Speed is not a factor in this weekend’s rally, in which drivers will stop at four specific locations on the 75-mile route and pick up a playing card at each one. When they get back to the museum, Mr. Eilertson said, competitors get a fifth card, and the team with the best poker hand wins.
The museum’s curator has also created a history mystery quiz drivers can participate in, which has teams of drivers and navigators stopping at specific historic markers and using clues and hints from the scorers of yesteryear to answer the trivia questions. The mystery quiz theme changes each year, and this weekend’s historic marker motif was chosen not just to celebrate the racing centenary, but also to honor the 375th anniversary of the Town of Southampton.
There will also be a judged show, for those who might not be prepared to drive their vintage vehicles in the rally or parade.
The show is free to the public, and costs $100 to enter a car; cars build before 1969 are eligible and newer models will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Motorists can enter up until 10 a.m. on Saturday morning, but Mr. Eilertson suggested they do it ahead of time; rally participants must submit copies of their driver’s license, car registration and insurance—as well as a release signed by the driver and passengers.
For more information visit bridgehamptonhistoricalsociety.org or call (631) 537-1088.