The Road Panthers hot rod club has had a significant presence in Glen Cove since it was founded in 1952. The first group of its kind on the East Coast, the club took part in Glen Cove’s Memorial Day Parade for decades, showing off its many souped-up cars to generations of onlookers.
That ended, however, when a monster truck — which wasn’t affiliated with the Road Panthers — attempted a burnout and lost control during the 2015 Memorial Day parade, nearly veering into the crowd, according to Fred Nielsen, chairman of the Memorial Day Parade Committee. Club members remain upset that they were told they could no longer take part in the parade, and several are looking to change that this year by advocating for their reinstatement.
Tony Contorino, president of the Road Panthers, said that most members are veterans, and being part of the parade is especially close to their hearts. “It was just a way for us to honor our veterans, just like anyone else,” Contorino said. “We’d love to be back in there.”
Now, members of the club are talking with the parade committee to see if they can be reinstated. Nielsen said he wants to bring the club back into the parade, but the committee needs to be sure that spectators would have no risk of being injured by the hot rods. While the Road Panthers’ status has yet to be determined, members are optimistic about joining the parade once again.
Contorino, 81, has been around the Road Panthers since the very beginning. The club was made up mostly of teenage boys who were always trying to make their cars louder and faster, racing each other at breakneck speeds of up to 40 mph. Although members tended to exceed the local speed limit, they stayed in the good graces of the Glen Cove Police Department.
In fact, as then Police Chief Frank McCue noticed more teens getting into hot rodding, he assigned Officer Izzy Goldstein to work with the Road Panthers to organize the club into a city-certified entity. Working with the police, the club established the first sanctioned drag strip on the Eastern Seaboard on Morris Avenue, where many kids watched the drag races.
“They kind of kept us out of trouble,” Contorino said of the Police Department. “We learned real fast not to start screaming our wheels. They taught us to respect what we had, to respect each other, to respect other people.”
Many of those who were involved with the club back then credit its success to Goldstein, and the respect he commanded. “Izzy had a look,” recalled Roger Thyben, 81, who grew up around the club and became a member as an adult. “His look said, ‘Don’t mess around with this guy.’”
Thyben’s wife, Ronnie, 78, who has lived in Glen Cove her entire life, said that girls in the city had a somewhat different view of Goldstein. “When we were kids, he was hot,” she said. “All the girls were in love with him.”
While the club membership has changed considerably over the years due to age, relocation or death, the passion the Road Panthers have for their cars has not. According to Contorino, some members, who continue to meet regularly, still have the same machines they had 60 years ago. And while there has always been a passion for cars, he added, hot rods aren’t the most important part of the club.
“It’s a love of what you do, a love of the people,” Contorino said. “It’s not so much the cars, it’s the people you meet. For whatever reason, car people are good people.”
Club members have always loved driving in the Memorial Day Parade, he explained, and were dismayed when they were told they were no longer welcome. But he said he was hopeful that they would be allowed to drive once more next month, not only to wow the crowd, but also to keep the Road Panthers’ legacy alive.
The Thybens said that they share the same hope. “It would be very exciting,” Ronnie said. “Everyone loves the Road Panthers’ cars because they’re all from that [past] era.”
Roger said that although drag racing went on to become a worldwide movement, nobody did it quite like the Road Panthers. “The Glen Cove guys [are] a perfect example of what it was like in those days,” he said.