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Every fall, a group of men gather on the Wildwood beach to preserve a little piece of automotive history. Thousands come to watch cars of a bygone era race along the shore’s hardened wet sand. There’s no prize money, just a good time honoring a generation of cars – and the minds that built them.

Photos: Dean Chooch Landry

On a warm day in early October, sand flies on the Wildwood beach as a 1929 Ford Roadster faces down another 1932 Ford named the “Edelbrock Special.” The drivers, hovering neck and neck in goggles and leather helmets, grip their wheels tight to keep the cars travelling straight along the edge of the water, where the sand’s been packed hard by the retreating tide. It’s a timeless moment in automobile history, and it’s all over in seconds.

But of course, it isn’t the 1930s. It’s a much more modern occasion: the one weekend every year when racers (and their classic cars and motorcycles) flock from all over the world to the Wildwood beach. It’s like stepping back in time – if you can ignore all the smartphones, that is – and over the last decade it’s become one of the most popular automobile events in the world. This is the Race of Gentlemen.

 

Mel Stultz, founder of the Race of Gentlemen

It all started because Mel Stultz read a book. In 2012, the hot rod and motorcycle aficionado found his enthusiasm waning. He was bored by the same old car and bike shows in parking lots, with old-timers in lawn chairs next to their machines.

“I just found the car shows I was going to stagnant,” says Stultz, 51. “It was an older generation that was into hot rods and customs, and for me the real fun was getting to the event and leaving.”

In a book about the earliest cars, Stultz learned something interesting about New Jersey’s role in early automobile history.

“Before board track racing, when it was all experimental, I read they were testing these contraptions on the beaches,” he says. “In the offseason it was desolate and wide open. If your brakes failed you could steer it into softer sand, and if something caught fire you could drive into the ocean. It was like, this is as badass as it gets. These were men in business suits who’d just roll their sleeves up. These things were catching fire, and I was just like, this is tough as nails.”

It was an era he thought was gone forever – until he realized it might be possible to bring it back.

 

“A couple weeks later, I’m sitting at the beach at Asbury Park, and I look at the beach and realize, oh my god, there’s a giant straightaway with nothing on it. Man, that looks like a drag strip to me.”

Stultz met with some town officials and floated the idea of an exhibition race featuring historic cars and motorcycles. In mid-October, they blocked off a strip of sand in Allenhurst, near Asbury Park.

“I called 15 friends with cars and bikes and we went for it,” Stultz says. We put up some flyers, and we thought we’d have maybe 350 to 500 people. We wound up having 3,000.”

It was a huge success, and the racers were already dreaming about the next year.

“Then Hurricane Sandy came in 4 days later and demolished our beaches, our neighborhoods, our restaurants. We didn’t know if there would ever be another race,” says Stultz. “About 6 months later I got a message from someone in Wildwood. They asked if we’d consider bringing the race to South Jersey for a season. We got to the Wildwood beach and thought oh my god, we can never go back. This is the true infrastructure we’ve needed. There’s a huge beach, tons of hotels, a 1950s scene.”

The rest is history. Since 2013, The Race of Gentlemen has been a weekend-long party at the beginning of October in Wildwood, celebrating cars and motorcycles from a bygone era.

“We start at 8 am sharp on Saturday and Sunday, and we get guys out there racing until 6 at night. Saturday night there’s a huge beach party,” Stultz says. The crowds, of both racers and spectators, have grown every year.

“We’ve gained this following and turned on so many people,” Stultz says. In a typical year, the race now draws 20 to 25,000 people. “It’s little kids and young parents. There’s grandparents hanging on the fence and then going home and building a motorcycle to get one last run in. It’s pretty special. It feels wild and brash, but it’s also a really respectful event that cares about families.”

Some of the cars and bikes in the race are more than a century old. Stultz feels a responsibility to keep people interested, and that means hooking a whole new generation. To that end, The Race of Gentlemen is nothing if not kid-friendly.

 

“We really want to keep this hobby and passion alive,” says Stultz. “This year, we’re creating a racetrack for kids to race miniature cars, like a glorified pinewood derby. We’re just trying to keep the hobby going.”

Nick Hosmer, 30, was one of those kids. He grew up helping his dad build hot rods, and has been a spectator at The Race of Gentlemen for years.

“It’s one of those events where you don’t need to have a car or be racing to have a good time,” Hosmer says. But this year will be different. He’s got his own car to run in the sand. “The car I’m running is a Race of Gentlemen legend,” he says. “It’s a 1925 Ford Model T Roadster called ‘The Irish Sausage.’”

Hosmer has done a ton of work to get the car ready for the beach, following the strict guidelines of the race that will apply to all 180-some cars and motorcycles entered in this year’s event.

“Car bodies have to be no later than 1934, but parts can go to 1953. That’s the last year of the flathead [engine],” says Stultz. “Motorcycles must be 1947 or earlier. All vehicles must be American, although we do some exhibition and historical races, and every once in a while, there’ll be something so rare we’ll let it run.”

This year one of those rarities involves an American – a 1909 Alco, nicknamed The Black Beast.

“We knew it was coming to race with us, but we couldn’t find an opponent,” Stultz says. Eventually, he found a worthy car – though it is Italian – a 1908 Fiat Royale Factory Racer. The face-off between the two will be intense, but it doesn’t really matter who wins. In fact, that’s true of pretty much all the races that’ll take place throughout the weekend.

“It’s not about winning or losing, and that’s what I like about it,” Hosmer says. “You’re not going to get any money if you win. It’s just about glory and bragging rights. I get more of a kick out of racing my buddies or racing a car that’s way faster than mine.”

The actual track is just 660 feet long, or 1/8th of a mile. “Where drag racing started,” says Stultz. It’s extremely short, as racetracks go, but that doesn’t stop people coming from near and far to run it.

“We have racers that ship their cars and bikes from Japan, Austria, Germany, New Zealand – all over,” Stultz says. And while it may seem like a hobby for the rich, he says that’s not true. “You can build a car for under $5,000 if you have the ingenuity.”

For most of the racers, Hosmer says, it’s not really about how fast your car or motorcycle goes or how many races you win. It’s about celebrating the machines themselves, and the enterprising minds that built them.

“We’re trying to immortalize the roots of the hot rod,” he says. “I’m 30 years old – I wasn’t around to see the birth of hot rodding. But The Race of Gentlemen is about the vibe. It’s a tip of the hat to the greatest generation.”

It’s about the past, the present, and the future, says Stultz. It’s a 2-day trip to a “a simple time,” he says, “when we built things and we built them to last. I like old things because we made them well and we made them look good.”

At the Race of Gentlemen, as engines fire to life and the salt air is tinged with the smell of rubber and fuel, racers will be doing a lot more than looking good.

“Some people come at us like how dare you, that stuff should be in a museum,” Stultz says. “But these machines were made to go. We call it moving history.”

October 2021
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