There are loud engine noises coming off what looks like a cast-iron bathtub on wheels. It’s a 1934 Ford Hot Rod heading towards the beach in Wildwood, New Jersey. Meanwhile, the rules of the race are being announced to the spectators and riders from a lifeguard tower. In order to participate in “The Race of Gentlemen” (aka TROG), many have come from far and wide, bringing their pre-1935 American cars. These vintage cars are also restricted to replacement or add-on parts from the early 1950s at the latest. Meanwhile, the motorcycles all date from before 1947.
As the hot rods line up at the starting line side-by-side in pairs along the wide sandy beach, all eyes are on the flag girl, a barefooted woman with blonde hair wearing white Harley-Davidson service overalls, albeit now cut short-short. She’s got the checkered flag in her hand, ready to signal the start of the race. The engines roar and the tension on the beach rises. Then the flag girl jumps a good two feet into the air and lowers the flag.
The sand flies as the gentlemen floor the gas pedals in their vintage sportsters. A lot of gas, but not too much, because otherwise the tires will just dig a hole for themselves in the sand and they won’t move.
But the weather at the 2015 race was not so cooperative: Hurricane Joaquin postponed the start date and made the racing conditions even tougher. Storm damage to some of the vehicles was not fixed until just before the start of the race, which had been postponed a week by the hurricane.
Despite keeping their racing cars in the best shape possible, the drivers still have to reckon with everything in this 1/8 mile sprint on the Atlantic shore. Jessie Combs, the world’s fastest woman, for example, found that her steering wheel had come loose from the dash in one race! Somehow, she skillfully navigated her vehicle to the finish line, but no longer anywhere near the 435 mph with which she had broken the forty-eight-year-old land speed record in October 2013.
On top of the thrill of the race, the beach atmosphere provides plenty of fun just grilling and chilling. Back in the 1940s and 50s, hot-rodders had already started coming together on the beaches of the east and west coasts of the United States to compete against each other in sprints like the TROG. The 2015 event at Wildwood was organized for the fourth time by the Oilers Car Club, one of the co-founders of National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) back in 1949 and organizer of some of the first hot rod competitions ever. It’s no wonder that it’s the organization bringing back this spectacle for today’s audiences.
With typical Vegas-style neon signs on the motels and restaurants straight out of the 1950s, Wildwood is the perfect spot for such match-ups of historic racing cars and motorcycles. Motel after motel lines the four miles stretch called Atlantic Avenue. The Surfcomber Motel hosted a pre-race party the night before as the racers’ cars and motorcycles lined the streets to the delight of the many visitors.
Everyone celebrated the next day’s Race of Gentlemen, complete with the flag girl and her acrobatic jumps, all a part of the 1950s charm of Wildwood.