On May 25 of 2015, tragedy nearly struck in Glen Cove during the city’s annual Memorial Day Parade. A monster truck lost control while attempting a burnout and almost veered off into the crowd lining the city’s streets. While the driver regained control before anyone was hurt, the incident had consequences, and few people were hit harder than the city’s legendary hot road club, the Road Panthers.
As a result of the monster truck driver’s mistake, most vehicles were banned from the parade by the Memorial Day Parade Committee, even though the monster truck driver had no relation to the Road Panthers. However, thanks to dedicated campaigning by several of the club’s members, the club will be returning to the Memorial Day Parade this year with the committee’s blessing.
According to Road Panthers president Tony Contorino, one of the biggest reasons why the club wants to be back in the parade is that many of its members are veterans themselves who wish to honor their fallen comrades. It was this reasoning that inspired Fred Nielsen, current chairman of the parade committee, to bring the Road Panthers back into the parade. He said he was struck by their commitment to honoring veterans, and he led a unanimous vote among the 17 committee members to bring the club back into the parade on May 20.
Nielsen said that he saw the Road Panthers as they were back when the club began in 1952 — teenagers using the freedom granted to them by veterans to engage in a hobby based around hard work while cooperating with police in order to do so safely. He said he admired the great amount of dedication it took to build a hot road from scratch, which showed him just how strong the character of each Road Panther truly was.
“That’s what they were doing with their freedoms guaranteed by these veterans,” said Nielsen. “Of course, that’s why they want to ride in this parade with us. That is their way of celebrating and saying ‘thanks’ to those who gave their lives. I just thought that was so magnificent.”
“We’re very, very happy with what the Road Panthers bring to what we intend to do with our Memorial Day parade,” Nielsen later added.
Nielsen explained that he also greatly appreciates the place the Road Panthers hold in Glen Cove’s history. Created in 1952, the club was formed by a group of local teenagers who loved to build and race cars. Soon after its inception, the Glen Cove Police Department approached the club about its presence in the community, and the two entities agreed to cooperate with one another.
The Road Panthers were given a space to meet above the police station and were given dedicated places to race, so long as they maintained the police-mandated safety standards. They were even given a place to build cars, a large barn located at what is now the Highland Mews housing development which could hold 14 cars at a time. In the 67 years since the club’s inception, its members have never violated their agreement with the police.
Considering the Road Panthers’ status as veterans and their legacy in the community, Nielsen and the parade committee decided to alter the regulations set on automobiles in the parade after the monster truck incident. He said that, since he doesn’t know much about cars, he deferred to Contorino and Pete Prudente, a member of the parade committee and the youngest Road Panther at 59-years-old, to come up with a new set of standards for cars in the parade.
These standards are based primarily on two things — safety and conduct. Cars in the parade must maintain slow, steady speeds and refrain from performing any reckless maneuvers. Drivers and passengers must also be reserved in their demeanor, smiling and waving to the crowd without screaming or saying anything inappropriate. Ultimately, the three men said, it is all about respecting America’s fallen soldiers. Anybody who wishes to drive in the parade must sign a document agreeing to these standards beforehand.
Both Contorino and Prudente said that they are very pleased with the results of their work with the parade committee and are excited for the Road Panthers to return to the parade.
“It makes us feel good,” Contorino said on the club’s ability to preserve its legacy. “We’ve been around as long as we’ve been around, and we’re considered part of Glen Cove.”
“I’m just proud to even know these fellas, the Road Panthers,” said Prudente. “They have such a big, deep history in Glen Cove . . . and the big plus is they’re veterans. They’re veterans that are in these cars [and] they’re very honorable. I’m proud to know them.”
Prudente said he was proud to be of help, added, alluding to his involvement in both the club and the committee.
Road Panther Roger Thyben, who has been around the club since its beginning and became a member 10 years ago, was a part of the club’s campaign to get back into the parade. “It’s really great,” he said, “and it’s also waking people up to what these guys were. To us, it feels terrific.”
The Road Panthers hope to have six of their hot rods in the parade this year, and according to Contorino, their drivers will be thrilled to show off their passion to the thousands of onlookers once again.