The Race of Gentlemen: Up Close & Personal with Wildwood’s Legends
It is no secret that over the last few years The Race of Gentlemen has grown into a household name. More and more fans flock to Wildwood, NJ and crowd the beach to watch as racers blast down the sand. Racers who travel from around the country and the globe for the chance to experience the thrill of TROG. Even as the event gets bigger and better every year, it holds true to its roots, keeping authenticity, both of machines and the atmosphere, at the core.
Rolling into Wildwood that Friday evening I found myself still wondering why. Why race these old machines? Pun intended, what is it that drives these folks to race on the beach? Was I making it out to be some kind of grand mystery that deep down was pretty simple? I wouldn’t know unless I asked and to do that required stepping out from behind the camera. To uncover the why, I sought out personal stories, how each of the racers came to TROG, and what was special about their bike or hotrod.
You will discover that while each of their stories is unique, they are all connected.
From: Pittsville, MD
Racing: 1945 Harley Davidson WL 45”
“The old bikes are special— every bike is different, has a totally different start pattern, they all have their own personality, and you have to really love it to get it going.”
Crystal has been on motorcycles since the age of 2. Both her parents rode motorcycles, her dad taught her how to fix bikes and she got her moto license at 19. She loves Harleys and says they’re in her blood. The bike Crystal is racing at The Race of Gentlemen was her engagement ring from her husband Greg. This year is her comeback year since missing last year to have her son Ryder.
She loves the dirt track races, something that is dying out around the country, but does a lot of races in Delaware and Wauseon, OH. Crystal and fellow racer Jen Sheets are good friends and travel to swap meets with their families in the summer to look for old bikes and parts.
Her favorite part of TROG is the people. Crystal says it feels like a big family, everyone is so supportive and helps out. This year Crystal’s bike had some trouble on the track, stalled a few times, and people ran out to help her, figure out what was wrong, and work fast to get it going again.
From: Pittsfield, NH
Racing: 1929 Model A Roadster, with a 1948 Ford Flathead V8 #603
“I’m all about 4 wheels and lots of metal.”
The woman behind the man, Lisa runs a hotrod business Traditional Speed and Custom with her husband Eli. They both race cars at The Race of Gentlemen with their 2 boys watching from the stands. Lisa has been coming to TROG since the second year, starting out as a spectator and then racing as an amateur against Jessi Combs who holds the land speed record.
This year Lisa was blasting past everyone on the track in her V8. While it’s not a written rule that women can’t race at TROG, there are a limited number of women who participate. Lisa is always encouraging other women to race and hopes she’s setting it up for the upcoming girls in the hotrod community. She says “being out there on the sand, the whole setting is completely exhilarating.” For Lisa, TROG isn’t about win or lose, it’s for the fun of it, and sharing a love for racing these old machines.
Oiler Elrod (Jason Ellis)
From: Dallas, TX
Racing: “The Question Mark Coupe” 1931 McCulloch Supercharged Model A Ford Coupe
“You can look at a piece of paper and feel a spark, but getting to stand around and smell it, hear it, touch it, see it, and race in them is what’s really special.”
A member of the Oilers Car Club, Elrod was inspired by The Birth of Hotrodding. The book contains gorgeous color photos of vintage racing on the salt flats, all photographed by a World War II military photographer with access to old Kodachrome. Seeing those photos in color, seeing it come to life in color, really pushed his desire to do it in person.
He says what makes TROG unique is that it’s a gathering of car enthusiasts tapping into what car guys were doing when this was all being invented. They collect the parts, they look at photos, and they constantly think about cars— they eat, sleep, and breathe cars. The people who come out to TROG are passionate about creating a moment in time, to experience what it was like for those original guys when they were doing it for the first time.
Racing these old machines is an adventure and a true adrenaline rush. Elrod says, “there’s that feeling of I hope I can put this together and go down the track and be victorious at the end while at the same time, you’re crossing your fingers wondering is everything just going to explode.”
From: Easton, PA
Racing: 1942 Harley Davidson Flathead WLA 45”
“When in doubt, throttle it out!”
Karen is an adrenaline junkie and loves going fast. She has always been a tom boy, skiing and skateboarding, so it was only natural that she gravitated towards motorcycles. She was amazed when she saw the old bikes from the 1940s and 50s still running and then people racing them. Karen started riding at 46 and now at 52 has developed tons of courage to keep going and trying new stuff, and has a moto club called The Sirens.
“Trust the rubber,” a phrase she’s heard over the years, has taught her that you feel a difference in riding when you let the bike do what it is supposed to do. When I asked Karen what it is like to race at TROG she said, “I felt like stuff was speeding by my face, my hat was flying, and I kept telling myself don’t let go, don’t let go of the throttle! I did it and it was so thrilling!”
From: Hargerstown, MD
Racing: 1942 Harley Davidson Knucklehead 42” #56
“We love these old things because it’s bringing history back to life. Going to swap meets all year finding these pieces to put them together, and not only ride them around on the roads, but blast them down the sand is a great feeling.”
Jen caught the racing bug early on and grew up running around in the dirt with dirt bikes and motocross. Her 4 brothers had bikes and her dad was a total motorhead so her passion for bikes was always there.
Jen met her husband Jason at a local car show, her with her 1957 VW Bug and Jason with a 1956 Harley Davidson Panhead, her first introduction to these old bikes. Compared to dirt bikes, Harleys were a whole other animal. On weekends, they would load up bikes in a truck, go somewhere, and race around. Jen developed a love alongside her relationship with her husband for old ratty hotrods and motorcycles. Today, they both have full time jobs outside racing. Jason runs a machining and welding shop, also builds traditional hotrods, and Jen does full time landscape gardening and plant production for greenhouses.
She went through several bikes over the course of 10 years— starting with a KX125, then a basketcase ironhead, a shovelhead, and a 45 which she wanted to race flat track. Finally, Jen got up to the 1947 Knuckle head which she raced 2 years ago at The Race of Gentlemen.
Jen made a comeback to The Race of Gentlemen this year after having her daughter last year. This year Jen is racing the ’42 Knuckle Head, set up to go straight and fast. While the sand was a little squirrelly, she was happy to get 3 really great runs in on Saturday.
Jen loves the feeling of being around folks who are likeminded, who share a love for old hotrods and motorcycles. Her closest friends, like Greg and Crystal Giesey, are because of The Race of Gentlemen. She says “there’s nothing like TROG, even if you don’t like racing, just seeing these old machines, putting them under this kind of pressure in the hot sun hammering down the beach, is a feat in itself.”
Justin Walls, Built the Traditional Way
From: Grove City, OH
Racing: 1927 Harley Davidson F Head J Model 90”
“I built the bike to race and use, not just be a show bike.”
Justin has been in to bikes and cars all his life, totally immersed from his close group of friends to his family. He grew up in his dad’s diesel shop where he was always around tools and parts, learning early on.
When he was younger, Justin raced dirtbikes, drag raced with more modern stuff, and then discovered his true passion for the antiques.
Today, Justin is a wrench and mechanic and fabricator and runs his own company Built the Traditional Way (BTTW) where he builds frames and tanks. He was building choppers for a while and then sold one 2 years ago to get the 1927 Harley. Last year he was invited as a builder for Born Free, but finished the bike in time to race at The Race of Gentlemen in Wildwood a few weeks before Born Free. The first time ever riding the bike was going down the beach on a pass at TROG. After that, he took it to Born Free where it won Best Competition Motorcycle.
At this years TROG, Justin was camped out with the crew of the Eastwood Special— Scott Williams and Josh Shaw also from Ohio and Old Crow Speedshop’s Bobby Green. I spent some time watching him work on the bike as it came back steaming hot from the track. Justin did a great job maintaining everything on it and I was excited to see it racing well like it was meant to be.
Jeff Leighton, Vard MFG
From: Orange, CA
Racing: 1939 Harley Davidson WLD Flathead 45” #88
“The best thing with bikes for me is the people I’ve met. I have people who are dear friends to me in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Sweden, England, and Japan all because of this stuff.”
Jeff got into vintage motorcycles about 13 years ago and started building his own bikes — custom bikes and choppers. Over time, him and his friends’ tastes changed slightly. Jeff was getting vintage bikes around the same time that The Race of Gentlemen began in New Jersey. On the West Coast they were doing their own style of races with tank shift bikes, but flat track, hill climbs, and TT races. Jeff and his friends heard about TROG, saw photos, and were completely inspired.
After racing in Pismo Beach in October last year, Jeff knew he needed to come out to Wildwood so they loaded up 5 bikes, and drove cross country. He says one of his
favorite parts about TROG is seeing all his buddies, a bunch of like-minded guys into the same stuff, and getting to rip around on the beach all weekend.
Outside of racing, Jeff runs Vard Manufacturing with friend, Jon "Harpoon" Haprov. They recreate a 40s front end that was made by an aftermarket company, the first hydraulic front end in America. Vard gives away one of their front ends as a trophy to the fastest bike on the beach at TROG. Jeff also does fabrication for other guys’ bikes and makes a few parts. While building bikes is his favorite thing in the world to do, he’s all about finding the balance between work and what he’s passionate about.
From: Sem City, Norway
Racing: 1927 For T Roadster Flathead V8
Jan was into cars from a young age, his family owned cars, and he was hooked after seeing the photographs of hotrods in the magazines in Norway. From there he got into the same kind of racing in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.
Currently, Jan runs a small speed shop in Norway, selling small parts and doing repairs. He’s collected a few hotrods over the years, like a 1954 Shoebox Ford Coupe, and keeps a 1932 Ford Roadster in New Hampshire that he mentioned he needs to ride home.
The drag racer Jan brought to The Race of Gentlemen was inspired by the original drag racers back in the day. He pulled out his phone to show me an old black and white article with a photo of the car he modeled his after. He got it right even down to the paint detail. Jan flew in a week before the race and worked with Nils and Matt of the Tornadoes Car Club in Massachusetts to get the car ready to race. TROG would be the inaugural run for their drag racer. The team spent the whole week putting it together, pulling 20 hour days just to get it finished up. The car didn’t look like much at first, very light, things were strapped in to the trunk which didn’t have a bottom to it— you could see straight through to the sand—but wow it was super fast on the track! My favorite piece of the car was the can of Aass Norwegian beer, a brilliant touch.
Photos and story by Kimberly Maroon