written by Kara Mcginley
photographs by Annie Morton
When it comes to organized motor sports, the races and events that usually come to mind are Nascar, Talladega, Formula 1, and so on. But one you hear of less often is the unsung hero, 1950’s version of motorized sport racing – The Race of the Gentleman, held every summer on the sprawling, mile long beaches of Wildwood, New Jersey.
Many races are riddled with rules, from tire pressure to helmets to fire-proof suits to evacuation plans. But at The Race of The Gentleman (TROG), to quote the hot-rod driving Scorpions member in the movie Grease, “the rules are..there ain’t no rules.” With only one exception: each car or motorbike must be vintage. Which means yes, most do not have up-to-code seatbelts.
People spend months collecting old parts from chop shops and junkyards to make their car or motorbike perfect for the race. The founder of The Race of the Gentleman, Mel Stultz, told Rolling Stone, “[For the race] we pick the fastest, baddest, coolest bikes all across the world.”
Before the race starts, racers arrive with their vehicles for inspection. Except, it’s not the traditional racecar inspection where you’d check oil and tires. Here, the competitors are usually there to put finishing touches on their cars or bikes, to make final tweaks and tests, or sometimes to even completely assemble them on the spot.
Since all the parts must be from the 1950’s or before, there is high risk of the vehicle stalling, or breaking down altogether. The TROG tribe often helps each other out, despite being competitors. It’s not uncommon to see another racer lend a helping hand when someone’s motorbike refuses to start.
Although the race is held in the summer months, when the average temperature is around 99 degrees Fahrenheit, the normal costume of a competitor is Pony Boy chic, or Danny Zuko-esque. The sun is beating down, the sand is scorching hot, and the engines are loud.
The race brings many bearded, tattooed faces to town, but don’t judge a book by its cover – these are some of the friendliest, most fun-loving people - gathered together over a common, yet extremely niche, bond.
Despite the name, it’s not just for men, women compete right alongside them, soaring through the blinding sunlight and giving it their all to win the TROG Cup and of course, bragging rights. The beaches line up with crowds of 10,000 plus family members, friends, and fans facing the heat to cheer on their racers.
Even when there is a massive race happening, Wildwood doesn’t close down its beaches to the public. It’s very much the Jersey Shore That Never Sleeps in that sense. You probably know Wildwood beach from the viral YouTube video, but it’s so much more than that horrific scene, and truly much more than just a beach at the Jersey Shore. Containing less Guidos than its Northern Jersey Beach cousin Seaside Heights, and less goody-two shoes than it’s absolutely-no-alcohol-permitted-this-is-a-dry-island, kid sister Ocean City, NJ. Wildwood is a Jersey Shore of its own accord.
A normal day out in Wildwood is a 365-day carnival anywhere else. Meaning, it’s a constant, ongoing festival in every sense of the word. The boardwalk is the epicenter of Wildwood. It has more amusement park rides than any other Jersey Shore boardwalk. Rollercoasters, Ferris Wheels, Tilt-a-Whirls, Soaring Swings, Gravitrons, oh my! And it is jam packed with food stands. Do you want a fried Oreo? What’s a fried Oreo? Just try it. Funnel cake? Curly fries? Cobb Salad? You got it! The tram-car is like Wildwoods extra-long magic carpet, taking tanned bodies, both big and small, wherever their heart desires (as long as it’s on the two miles stretch of the boardwalk, which safe bet, it is).
Despite all the wholesome family fun, it is also a place where you can be underage and slip the tattoo artist an extra $20 to get that butterfly tattoo on your hip that you will surely regret. And though the city has been desperately trying to shed this reputation, it’s a place where you can get drunk with a fake ID, which makes it a popular destination for high school senior week trips. While walking the boardwalk, you are likely to see a group of 20-somethings stumbling out of a bar, just to walk five feet and see a child winning a stuffed animal from scoring the most baskets at the arcade.
Wildwood is mostly filled with people fleeing the blacktop streets of Philadelphia, but there are also herds of locals, a handful of New Yorkers, and a few others who find home on the wayward, scenic shores. During the 60’s to 80’s, Wildwood was the place to be if you wanted to catch some good live music and dance. Bands like Four Seasons would just waltz in if they wanted to practice a few new tunes. It had a thriving nightclub scene for a while, but most of those places have turned into restaurants and bars in an effort to clean up Wildwoods name.
That being said, die-hard Wildwooders, those who have been coming to the beach since they were kids, the people who wouldn’t dare miss the Polar Bear Plunge in the winter or Irish Weekend in the early fall, wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. They shrug at the fancy clubs of Atlantic City and the 3,000 capacity bars in Belmar. In Wildwood, they have all they need. There’s a new event every day and the du-wop, bright colored motels and houses are comforting. You can’t beat tradition, and despite times changing and the city transitioning into a mildly tamer version of itself, to many, Wildwood is still home, which to them, is still the place to be.