Alistair Cooke, one of my great heroes, has lived on Fifth Avenue in New York for more than 50 years, but he has also long had a house on Long Island. If my circumstances, professional and financial, permitted it, this is precisely the domestic arrangement I would choose: a house in the Hamptons, preferably overlooking the sea, and an apartment in Manhattan. Bliss.
After the US Grand Prix, I took a holiday, split between the two, and while on Long Island decided I had to see what remained of Bridgehampton, the classic road circuit set in sandhills overlooking Peconic Bay. As much as anything, my enthusiasm had been recently fired by reading The Last Open Road, B S Levy’s wonderful novel about American sportscar racing in the early 1950s.
They actually started racing in Bridgehampton back in 1915, on a dirt road circuit in the village itself, dropped the idea in 1920, and revived it again in 1949.1 bought an old programme, complete with map of the four-mile street circuit used in the early post-war yea’s, and spent a lovely couple of hours tracing it, from the start/finish area on Ocean Road, down Sagaponack Road, along Main Street, and finally on to Bridge Lane, so named because it includes a bridge over Sag Pond which is exactly as it was in the racing days.
In the middle of along, tree-lined, flat-out stretch, the bridge is emphatically not two cars wide, so if you were in a battle with someone as you approached it, decisions had to be made. On the bridge itself, the Ferraris and Curminghams and C-Type Jags would routinely take off; even by the standards of 50 years ago, this was a track for the very brave.
Going by photographs taken at the time, everything is exactly as it was; must have been a glorious place to go racing. What was the paddock is now a nursery, called — appropriately enough — ‘The Paddock Nursery’. I liked that.
Together with Watkins Glen and Elkhart Lake, Bridgehampton was a mainstay of sportscar racing in America 50 years ago. All three tracks were over public roads, and safety, for driver or spectator, was virtually non-existent. The 1953 programme includes various warnings for fans, and not in Blairspeak, either: Stay off the course. Fences, barriers and officials are there to protectyou. Ifyou ignore than, you might get a ticket — tied around your toe in the morgue.
The man writing the notes was only too aware that this kind of racing was under threat The year before, an accident at the Glen in ’52 had resulted in the death of a young boy. “If accidents like that happen very often,” the Bridgehampton programme warned, “sportscar racing will go the way of the Pony Express.”
In fact, it was already clear that the future lay with permanent circuits, and in Bridgehampton a search began for a new site. After a parcel of land had been acquired near the small town of Sag Harbor, a 2.8-mile track was built, and it was soon to become known for all time as, ‘The Bridge’. Racing started there in 1957, and right away real racing drivers adored the place.
At Indianapolis, I asked Mario Andretti how he remembered it: “Character-building,” he smiled. “In my opinion, it was maybe the greatest track in America, certainly right up there with Elkhart. Up and down, with every kind of corner, a lot of them blind; not a circuit where you could take liberties, that’s for sure. I loved it.
“Problem was,” Mario added, “it had terrible accessibility. From a traffic standpoint, the Long Island Expressway was — and is —just awful, particularly on a summer weekend. Bridgehampton’s a beautiful village, but that’s what it is — a village; when you got a big crowd in for, say, a CanAm race, it was chaos. But out on the track, you forgot all that, because the location was out of this world.”
Andretti adored it, then, and so did such as Dan Gurney and Chris Amon, who starred in the first CanAm race at the track, in 1966. “It was one of those tracks like the old Spa, or Rouen,” said Gurney. “There were no straightaways worth the name, yet it was very fast. Intimidating, if you like, with several blind corners. It was a place you really had to know before you felt confident but, boy, once you did, a really quick lap there was so satisfying.”
Gurney and Amon, in Lola-Ford and McLaren-Chevrolet respectively, left the rest behind that afternoon, racing hard for two hours, well clear of the likes of Bruce McLaren, Phil Hill and Mark Donohue. “I hadn’t been there before,” said Amon, “but I just fell in love with the place. Everything about it seemed right The track itself was fantastic, even at a time when so many tracks were fantastic! And there were lots of comers you could really get your teeth into.
“It wasn’t just the circuit, though. The whole feel of that race was great Here you were, in this beautiful setting, and the local people were so enthusiastic about the race. Bridgehampton had an atmosphere that was unique… Like a sort of big-time club race. Lovely.”
They ran four Can-Am races there, the last of them in 1969. By this time the series had become known as The Bruce and Denny Show’, and, sure enough, the orange McLarens finished 1-2, with Hulme winning on this occasion. In the opening stages they were chased by Amon, now in Ferrari’s brutish, but under-financed, 612P, but as usual it expired, and that place was taken by Jo Siffert, in a CanAm version of Porsche’s early 917.
It was Siffert’s first visit to Bridgehampton, and he was captivated by it. “The best circuit in America, and one of the best anywhere. In future, I will look forward to this race.”
Sadly, `Seppi’ never returned and neither did any other of the world’s top drivers. By 1970, Bridgehampton was in financial trouble, and the CanAm race, scheduled for September, was cancelled and transferred to the new facility at Road Atlanta. Although national-level racing continued there, it was decided to sell the track to a property developer who would build what amounted to a very upmarket housing estate.
Opposition in the town fortunately led to the throwing out of this plan, and when a man called Bob Rubin bought the circuit in 1985, there seemed reason to hope the great days of Bridgehampton might be revived, for Rubin, a Wall Street banker, was also a keen sportscar enthusiast.
It all came to nought In the town I asked a local man how to get to the circuit and, having given directions, he volunteered his opinion of its downfall. “They’re turning it into a golf course,” he growled. ‘The bastards.”
From that, it wasn’t too difficult to discern where, in contemporary parlance, the man was coming from. He warmed to his task. “This area has changed out of sight,” he went on. “A lot of rich people bought land to build houses near the track, without even troubling to find out there was a track there! As soon as there was a race, they started hollering about the noise and, well, they seem to control things around here…”
Thus the last race at Bridgehampton was run in October 1997. My friend Murray Smith, himself an avid race car collector, lives in nearby Amagansett, and I told him of my wish to have a look at the circuit. “Well, good luck,” he shrugged. “There’s not much left to see.”
I drove in, followed endless dirt roads, went by the famous bridge, then came upon the old race control building, and stopped. Everywhere there were piles of torn up asphalt, and indications of a golf course under construction.
I took out my camera, then noticed a man in hard hat striding towards me, red in the face and already yelling. I was an English journalist, I explained, and simply wanted to take a few pictures of what remained of a great race track. Out of the question, he said: get the hell off this property.
In the gentle setting, his breathtaking aggression was the more unexpected, the more incongruous. I don’t know where Mr Rubin found him — a KGB reject, perhaps, thrown out for being too unpleasant. Whatever, it was as WI had wandered into Los Alamos, rather than a race circuit being turned over to rich arrivistes in plus-fours.
Sad world, I thought, as I drove out “Give me Goodwood on a summer’s day,” Roy Salvadori famously said, “and you can keep the rest of the world.” Once upon a time, Bridgehampton must have been like that. Now it’s gone the way of the Pony Express.