History Of Racing On Long Island

(Photo by Robert R. Clock)

Long Island’s history of motor sports is more than a century old. It includes the first-ever international road race, dating back to 1904.

That race came together thanks to William K. Vanderbilt Jr., one of the first people to create an actual automobile racing series. It was an event that took up a chunk of Nassau County, too, spanning from Jericho Turnpike to Massapequa-Hicksville Road, as well as Hempstead-Bethpage Turnpike, according to Howard Kroplick, founder of www.VanderbiltCupRaces.com.

“From 1904 to 1910, the center of U.S. racing was right here on Long Island,” Kroplick said. “The Vanderbilt Cup races were it. They were drawing crowds of up to 300,000 people.”

The 30.24-mile course used up public roads, lasting for 10 laps. There were lengthy turns in Jericho, Plainedge and Queens.

This would mark the beginning of Long Island’s racing endeavors.

As motor sports expanded across the country, the island was no different. Racetracks developed across Nassau and Suffolk counties, featuring several different forms of racing.

Racing’s best drivers competed on Long Island. Highlighted by NASCAR’s all-time wins leader Richard Petty, Hall of Fame racer David Pearson to Bobby Allison, Long Island hosted some amazing racers.

Freeport Speedway, a 0.2-mile oval, was one of Nassau County’s most popular venues, but shut down in 1983. Likewise for Islip Speedway, which closed a year after Freeport. Bridgehampton in Suffolk County also played host to a racetrack, known as The Bridge, a 2.85-mile road course. At one point, there were about 40 racetracks on the island.

Islip and The Bridge played host to the NASCAR Grand National Series for a combined 10 events (four at The Bridge and six at Islip) from 1958-71. Petty won three of those contests, with Allison winning two of them. Islip is considered to be the shortest track to ever hold a NASCAR race, and dozens of Trans-Am races were run at The Bridge, several being won by legends Mark Donohue and George Follmer.

The 1912 Vanderbilt Cup race prepares to take the green flag. (Photo by Howard Kroplick of www.VanderbiltCupRaces.com)

Riverhead Raceway, built in 1949, is the last remaining racetrack on the island. This 0.25-mile track hosts weekly Saturday night events, partnering with the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series and Whelen Modified Series to receive some national spotlight in the racing world. Besides the two modified divisions, Riverhead also hosts the INEX Legends national qualifier, NEMA midgets, enduro car races, demolition derby, school bus figure eights and demolitions, as well as monster trucks.

The most successful racer out of Long Island is Andy Lally, who’s competed in hundreds of stock car and sports car contests. The Northport native won the 2011 NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year award. He’s also won three Rolex Grand-Am Sports Car Series (now known as IMSA) championships.

Lally has won five Rolex 24 at Daytona contests, considered to be one of the most prestigious events in sports car racing. He also competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice (2005-06), finishing third in the latter.

In 2019, Long Island’s racing history remains strong. Riverhead Raceway was purchased by new owners a few years ago, redoing the entire facility to make sure racing stays on Long Island for years to come.

Joseph Wolkin
Joseph Wolkin is the former editor of the Levittown Tribune, Syosset-Jericho Tribune and Anton Media Group's automotive special section and county news section. A graduate of Stony Brook University, Joseph has been published in dozens of publications. He is the author of Grandma: The Story Of A Boy And His Grandma.

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