High tides and time machines
Wildwood, N.J., June 8–10—When Mel Stultz conceptualized The Race Of Gentlemen in 2012, he and the other members of the Oilers Car Club had in mind drag races on the beach, invoking the early days of racing in simpler times. Mel approached the mayors of Jersey Shore towns Allenhurst and Loch Arbour, both of whom agreed to the idea.
Kicking off that inaugural 2012 race was a Friday night beach party, and on Saturday, 15 pre-1934 cars and 15 pre-1950 tank-shift bikes completed on the 1/8-mile stretch of sand. Even with only a few months to prepare and publicize the event, several thousand spectators turned out to watch vintage cars and bikes tear along the beach. The inaugural race was deemed a great success, but only a week later, Superstorm Sandy ripped through the Northeast, decimating everything in her path including the strip of beach where TROG had just taken place.
The Oilers Car Club needed to find a new venue, and the next year, the City of Wildwood, about a hundred miles south of the original race, agreed to host the second annual TROG. The resort town, with its retro, kitschy, art-deco vibe, was a perfect fit, offering a wide beach, long boardwalk, amusement parks and an abundance of hotels.
The Race of Gentlemen has been held in Wildwood every year since then, and the event has grown every year in both size and scope. Although the official race days are Saturday and Sunday, folks start arriving earlier in the week. When I arrived Friday afternoon, both the lot across from the Starlux Hotel and the blocked-off street were filled with vintage vehicles and their owners and crews. It was a wonderful opportunity to check out the old cars and bikes up close and speak to the racers in a fun, relaxed environment rather than during the pressure of competition later in the weekend.
Live music, food and drink, and old bike and car talk carried well into the evening, flowing effortlessly into the official Friday night kick-off event, Night of the Troglodytes. The party, which took over the parking lot of Binn’s Motor Inn a half mile up the street, was in full swing by the time we got there and rocked on until late that night.
Saturday morning brought the delightful spectacle of all the racing cars and bikes being ridden through town and into tunnel underneath the boardwalk at Morey’s Pier, and then proceeding to the pit area on the far side of the beach, right along the ocean. Each competitor’s ride had to meet certain specifications to participate; for one, the machines had to be “hopped up” and look authentic to evoke the golden era of racing. Car bodies had to be 1934 or older, with 4-banger or V8 flathead engines up to 1953, along with other period-correct requirements. Bikes had to be bobbed and stripped down for racing, and the motors 1947 or older OEM, except for later-model Flatheads which could still be considered for acceptance. There were other requirements as well, such as both cars and bikes had to be American made.
Throughout the weekend, the spectator entrance lines could be quite long, which made an excellent case for purchasing tickets in advance. Weekend passes for adults were $50 in advance and $55 onsite, $15 for children 7 years old and up, and children six and under were free. Single-day tickets were $35 on Saturday and $20 on Sunday, and children 7 and up were $10. Pit passes could be purchased for $10 per person for those 18 and older.
On Saturday, the pits were packed with the machines, drivers, their crews, and assorted other folks. This all changed on Sunday when pit access was severely restricted so as not to get in the way of the racers. That said, there were plenty of other things to do while racing was going on. The beach had taken on a festival-like atmosphere that weekend. In one tent, tons of TROG merchandise could be purchased. TROG sponsors Marvel Oil Company, Sailor Jerry, Hochstadter’s Slow & Low Rock & Rye, American Hot Rod Foundation, and more also had tents set up for merchandise and information. There were several outstanding food and drink vendors, a huge beer tent, a kids’ area, and a TROG photo booth which was busy all weekend. And speaking of vintage-style photos, Rob Gibson and his mobile photo rig, a 1938 Harley-Davidson package truck, motorcycle and sidecar, was busy shooting and developing tintype photos of both the racing scene and individuals that wanted unique keepsakes.
On the sand between the boardwalk and the races, Kustorama, an online encyclopedia dedicated to traditional hot rods and custom cars, again presented Customs by the Sea. Pre-registration was required but it was a pretty cool way to have your car displayed to TROG attendees and anyone else on the beach, not to mention a primo parking spot close to the TROG entrance gate and pits.
The actual racing was just superb, with plenty of drama arising throughout the weekend. This one-of-a-kind event draws both competitors and attendees from all over the world, with locally-known as well as internationally famous folks showing up to race on the sand. Billy Lane of Choppers Inc., Rick Petko formerly of Orange County Choppers, Matt Walksler of Wheels Through Time, and Aaron Kaufman of Shifting Gears were some of the better-known competitors, and many of my friends and fellow vintage bike enthusiasts raced as well. A real treat was seeing the great Gene Winfield, who just turned 91, race his hot rod.
As exciting as the racing was, the sand, intermittent rainstorms, and the tide provided even more drama to the point of danger. The sand is unlike any other racing surface, and to say it was challenging would be a gross understatement. The sand up the beach was soft and deep, while near the water it was hard packed but rutted due to the tide going out, the water draining creating “fingers” making for hazardous conditions. Saturday, Jeremiah Armenta of Love Cycles in Phoenix on his ’41 Knucklehead wiped out during the last pass of the day.
A bonfire beach party was held Saturday night, with live music outside the beer tent. And Sunday morning, the second day of racing began. Bracket racing was the method of determining the winner, but despite ongoing grooming, the sand was still treacherous and “Sushi” Atsushi Yasui of Freewheelers & Co. in Tokyo also wiped out on his ’39 Knuck. Both Jeremiah and Sushi paid brief visits to the hospital, and hopefully, being named the TROG 2018 winners will make their respective recoveries a bit less painful.
The Race of Gentlemen isn’t solely a Jersey Shore event; in October 2016, TROG West took place at Pismo Beach, California. And during the summer of 2017, the Harley-Davidson Museum featured an exclusive, elaborate, and evocative TROG exhibit. This year, as part of Harley-Davidson’s 115th anniversary celebration in Milwaukee, TROG is presenting the Bradford Beach Brawl on September 1. There have also been murmurs of returning to Pismo Beach or possibly racing in Galveston in 2019, although Mel assures us that TROG will keep racing in Wildwood as long as they’ll have us. Regardless of where the Oilers Car Club brings this fabulous event, make plans to attend. I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like it.