The Dan’s Papers 5K PotatoHampton Minithon was held on the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend for 30 years. For the past few years this picturesque race has been held the weekend following Memorial Day and is now cementing the first Saturday in June as its new traditional race date. Despite this change, much remains the same about this 34-year-old race. The starting line is still on Ocean Road in Bridgehampton, just south of the Bridgehampton monument in the center of town. Dan Rattiner still starts the race off, leading the pack in his vintage sports car, and it’s still one of the prettiest races around.
This date change from Memorial Day weekend to the first Saturday in June is the second big change PotatoHampton has seen. The first big change took place after the very first event, which was in 1979. Here is Dan Rattiner’s recollection of that race:
Police stopped traffic on Montauk Highway at the corner of Hayground Road so the runners could cross. They were very kind to have done that for us. But even in 1979 there were large numbers of cars on the Montauk Highway on Memorial Day weekend and, the following year, they politely requested that we change the route of the race. It could be north of the Montauk Highway or it could be south of the Montauk Highway. Either one would be fine. We chose south of the Montauk Highway for the second year. And it has been south of the highway since.
I still have a vivid memory of the police stopping traffic for the race that first year. It was not done with police cars parked on the roadway with lights flashing. It was done with motorcycle policemen, who parked their Harleys on the side of the road and walked out into the street waving their arms to shut the traffic down in both directions.
I was standing on the Montauk Highway to the east of that crossroad. And I was there not so much to witness the closing of the Montauk Highway as I was to help the lead runners coming down Hayground Road from the north to the Montauk Highway dodge a train. I had set up a horrible situation with the route I chose for that first race. I didn’t notice what I had done wrong. And the police did not notice what I had done wrong either.
I had chosen a route that would take the runners from the starting line on Snake Hollow Road north past the railroad tracks to Mitchell Lane, then up to Scuttlehole Road, then west on Scuttlehole Road to Hayground, then south down Hayground to cross the highway and then down Newlight Lane into the depths of the potato farms there. The finish line was in front of the Dan’s Papers building.
The mistake was not the single crossing of the highway. The mistake was the railroad tracks. I had not checked on whether any train was coming through when I had drawn the map for the race. There were only two trains a day. How could either one of them possibly be exactly then? A few days before race day I thought, “Well, maybe I ought to check,” and damn if there wasn’t a train coming through right when the runners would be coming through.
And so, on race day morning, when I handed out the maps, I handed out a separate sheet describing the rules on what to do if when you got to the railroad crossing there was a train coming through. You waited jogging in place. That was the rule. I might note that when I handed these sheets out, there was a bit of grumbling about this. Jogging in place would ruin their times. Deal with it, I told them.
I also, the day before the race, called the railroad main office. They couldn’t delay the train, they said, but they could tell the engineer to slow it down really, really slow when they got to these two crossings, and to sound their horn really, really loud.
The first crossing of the tracks took place directly after the start of the race. I had placed two people on either side of Snake Hollow, presumably to yell at the train or the runners, but there was no train at that time and, from the starting line, I could see the 350 runners of that first race come roaring across the tracks waving their arms and cheering without any train problems.
This was the first running race ever held in the Hamptons. Jimmy Carter was president. The enemy was the Soviet Union. We had just gotten color TV. As the runners headed up Snake Hollow and then Mitchell Lane toward Scuttlehole, I followed in the car and watched as the faster runners pulled away and the slower runners straggled behind. They made a long, long line off on the right side of Mitchell and I didn’t think anything of it, but I did think I ought to drive up the line to the front to see who was winning so I could write about it later.
I had passed everybody by the time I reached Scuttlehole, and as I turned left there, I looked in the rearview mirror at the lead runners and didn’t think much more of the fact that things were stretching out even farther. Instead, my thoughts were about that second crossing of the railroad tracks up ahead. We had nobody there, and I thought I might do something about the crossing there so I went on ahead to it, didn’t see a train, began to realize there was really nothing I could do about whatever happened, and so I headed down to the Montauk Highway to watch the police stopping traffic there. There is no traffic light at this corner. And no stop sign. The cops would do the job.
The thing was that both the police and I believed that everybody would be thundering across the highway all at once. That is how we had imagined it. They’d only have to stop the traffic for three minutes or so.
But of course, in the event, that is not what was about to happen. It suddenly dawned on me that the police would see the lead runners coming, stop traffic, and then have to keep it stopped for maybe the next 20 minutes if they wanted to protect all the runners as they came through. Who’d have thought of this?
And then I heard the hysterical hooting of the train whistle at the crossing two blocks up the Hayground. I couldn’t see what was going on there. And I just prayed that nobody got killed. Of course, as I learned later, the lead runners got across just before the train and then the train came through leaving the next group of runners jogging merrily in place for a while.
So here were the lead runners now coming across the Montauk Highway north to south with the police stopping traffic for them in both directions. And then there were a few more runners and a few more runners and a few more runners and by that time the traffic was tied up for hundreds of yards in both directions and I was looking for a hole to crawl in.
At that point, the chief called the operation off. They said a few things over their two-way radios, got back on their motorcycles and headed off somewhere. The traffic now began to move in both directions and as it did, I watched this horrible sight — hundreds of runners in their t-shirts and shorts now picking their way through the moving traffic. I just hid my head and prayed.
Well, nobody got killed. If they had, there wouldn’t be any race this year, of course, and there wouldn’t have even been a second race or any other races after that.
And that’s why, way back then, when the police department asked very politely that I not have the runners cross the Montauk Highway for the second renewal of the race, I heartily concurred. Yes indeedy.
The gun sounds at 9 a.m. I will be leading the parade in the same car I drove to lead that first parade. It was at that time 20-years-old. It is now 50-years-old. It is a bright red 1959 Triumph TR-3 sports car and a grand old thing it is indeed.
It still runs fine. And so do I.