Head to Wildwood, New Jersey for one of the greatest hot rod races in the country
The Race of Gentlemen, held on the beach in Wildwood, New Jersey, harkens back to the peak of the hot-rod era, but it’s also about hugs.
Engines roar, vintage motorcycles churn up the sand and the briny sea air is thick with the smell of gas and oil. But Gene “Windy” Winfield, a week shy of his 91st birthday, is a picture of cool in his shiny black 1932 Ford Roadster hot rod, its growling engine exposed.
He’s on the starting line at the Race of Gentlemen, a series of period-perfect drag races, held every year since 2013 on the wide beach at Wildwood, New Jersey, a blue-collar boardwalk town at the southern end of the Jersey Shore. With only pre-1935 cars and pre-1947 bikes allowed to race, it’s the most revved-up history lesson you’ll ever see.
Winfield is here for the rush he’s been chasing since the late 1940s, when, as a 21-year-old, he started taking his souped-up 1927 Ford Model T Roadster to race the dry lake at El Mirage, California. He has never smoked, drunk alcohol or even coffee—this obsession with speed has been enough. It’s as if the thrill seeking has helped keep him youthful; he’s still wiry with a thick mop of black hair under his battered teal helmet.
Winfield first worked on this particular Roadster in 1948. He’s customized and repaired it for five different owners through the years, and it should probably be in a car museum somewhere. Instead, with the tide fast encroaching on the sandy track, it is set to race Holeshot, a beautiful yellow Sedan dragster, driven by New Jersey car customizer Joe Conforth, who has built a number of winning cars in previous years.
The veteran flag girl, in her bandana and vintage Harley jumpsuit, points her flag at each driver, one by one, building the tension. Winfield looks on like a rugby player facing down a Māori haka. Then, as at the start of every race here, the flag girl leaps into the air, her tattooed legs curled behind her in a moment frozen in a thousand retro-filtered photos.
“The first year I did this I basically made up all the names. The race has blown up now, but I still get to make fun of jet skis and point out silly hats.” - Nick Foster (below), cigar shop owner and The Race of Gentlemen commentator, from Asbury Park, New Jersey
As she whips her flag down, revs turn to raw power. There’s a spin of tires and a thick spray of sand. Winfield’s Roadster can’t quite grip the soft beach, but Joe’s Holeshot lives up to its name (holeshot is a term for the driver who is quickest to reach racing speed), and is soon flying down the strip, overlooked by Wildwood’s Ferris wheel and wooden rollercoaster. Winfield’s powerful Roadster picks up pace, but it’s too late.
Still, when I catch up with him in the pit area, he’s beaming. “That was wild,” he says. “We had the engine power, but we just couldn’t get enough traction. But what fun! It’s so great to see this whole culture coming back.”
Winfield was there when that culture was new, as he tells me between countless interruptions for selfies. In the mid-1940s, he started playing around with a 1928 Ford Model A, installing a fake antenna just so he could hang a foxtail from it like the cool kids did. He was soon “hopping up” cars, in hot rod vernacular, and racing on the streets.
Winfield was called up to the Navy for the last six months of WWII, and served six months after the war ended. When he returned home, he found there was a whole new set of Californians who wanted to modify pre-war cars and race them on disused air strips or salt flats. “Guys came back from Hawaii or Okinawa with a bit of money in their pocket, having learned new skills,” he says. “This scene built up around speed, but also this fabulous engineering.”
By 1948, Winfield was running Windy’s Custom Shop in a converted chicken coop behind his mother’s house in Modesto, California, when he read about dry lake racing in a new magazine called Hot Rod. He was soon figuring out how to tweak his 1927 T Roadster to smash records at the El Mirage and Reno dry lakes, reaching 114.4 mph at Reno in 1949. When he was called up again, this time to serve in the U.S. Army in Japan, he organized that country’s first ever stock car race in 1951, leaving other G.I.s in his dust.
Like many of the early hot rodders, who were miscast as hoodlums, Winfield was a technical pioneer. In the late ’50s, he created a paint blending method, the “Winfield Fade,” to produce cars that looked like pieces of candy. He would go on to wow car nuts across the U.S. with wacky creations like the Winfield Reactor in 1965, a space-age machine that would appear in the TV shows Star Trek and Bewitched. His cars for movies like Blade Runner and Back to the Future, Part II helped cement his heady reputation among folk who know the difference between a flathead and a Nailhead.
“I’ve always loved the 1930s and ’40s. My husband built me this beautiful 1931 belly tanker as a wedding present, and this has been my first time racing it.” - Shaina Pugner (below), aka “Mrs. Pugs,” who works for a financial advice firm in Suffolk, Virginia
Over the years, the popularity of hot rodding has ebbed and flowed, waning in the ’60s as Detroit had learned—largely from the hot rod scene—how to build powerful muscle cars. But, while the ’80s saw a resurgence in hot rod culture, Winfield says today’s scene is livelier than ever. “I go to car shows and I see people doing fabulously innovative things with the same technology we used in the 1940s.” Demand for old knowledge is such that Winfield’s out-of-print first book, The Legendary Custom Cars and Hot Rods of Gene Winfield, will set you back close to $400.
Winfield points to the growing popularity of not just the Race of Gentlemen, but also the annual drag races at El Mirage and the evocative Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. “People are tired of cookie-cutter cars,” he says. “You need imagination and ingenuity to build a hot rod, and that challenge appeals to people.”
One of the big players behind the revival is Mel Stultz, aka Meldon Van Riper Stultz III, who founded The Race of Gentlemen back in 2012. When I first encounter him, he’s rushing around outside his black Harley-Davidson truck by the racing strip as his pet pig sleeps in the back. He’s barefoot, bearded, heavily tattooed, wearing an old U.S. Marines shirt and a battered Harley cap. He’s so busy that he can only tell me the story of the race in frantic snippets, later supplemented with a telephone call.
Stultz grew up a self-confessed wild man around Asbury Park, Bruce Springsteen’s old stomping grounds up the Jersey Shore. He’d been a surfer and skater, then a drummer in a band called Pigs in Space. After a post-high-school stint in the Marines—and the realization that his band wasn’t going to conquer the world—he found himself learning to “chop” a Ford Model A Sedan in the late ’90s. He started building hot rods, obsessed with the DIY creativity of it all, and a few years later traded one for a 1939 Harley-Davidson motorbike. He was hooked, and one of his trademark moves since has been to “surf” on old bikes, standing on the saddle, hands-free, bare-foot and wild.
Stultz was never interested in simply looking at old cars and bikes in shows. So, in 2010—while he made a living refitting bars around Asbury Park, and running the revamped Asbury Lanes bowling alley—he began running drag races on a disused race track in Englishtown, New Jersey. Increasingly fascinated by those early hot rodders, in 2008 he reformed a near-mythical car and motorcycle club called the Oilers, first founded in the ’40s by a Californian Navy vet named Jim Nelson, who—with echoes of Winfield’s chicken coop—built hot rods on his parent’s turkey farm.
Stultz was sitting alone on the local beach at Allenhurst, New Jersey, one day in 2012 when he had an “if you build it” moment. “It was just like: Man, we could drag race down that beach.” At the time, he was reading about the great ’20s race driver and mechanic “Gentle” Jimmy Murphy, and the days when car builders like him had to do demos for businessmen in return for funding. “You’d get these guys in suits and ties, who would strap into these contraptions they’d built and just haul ass.”
“I’ve had bike fever since I was a kid riding in my dad’s sidecar. Now we both run a motorcycle museum in Maggie Valley, North Carolina.” - Biker Matt Walksler, two-time Race of Gentlemen winner and owner of the Wheels Through Time museum
Mel Stultz founded The Race of Gentlemen in 2012
Stultz came up with the name The Race of Gentlemen partly to persuade the mayor of Allenhurst to allow the race to happen. “I had neck tats and a crazy beard. The idea was, ‘Let’s not scare this town.’” Stultz also liked that the acronym, TROG, a nod to troglodytes and the garage rock of The Troggs. “Besides,” he says, “you can be a gentleman and a punk.”
So, in the fall of 2012, Stultz ushered 15 cars and 15 bikes, all vintage, onto the beach at Allenhurst, as around 3,000 spectators turned up, many having seen Stultz’s raw homemade flyers. He had pulled in his Oilers crew to help, and had plucked up the courage to ask Sara Francello, the “tough” barmaid at the bar he was refitting, if she would be the flag girl. Francello had no idea what a flag girl was, but agreed, even though she hates having her picture taken. Stultz and Francello would eventually become a couple, and she would become perhaps the most photographed flag girl of all time.
That first year was a success, even as cars and bikes regularly got stuck in the sand. A 14-page feature in Hot Rod magazine was a clarion call to a whole community: “It shook the industry,” recalls Stultz. “People just looked at the pictures and were like: What the hell is this?” But, just days after the race, Hurricane Sandy hit Allenhurst hard, meaning Stultz had to go searching for a new place to hold his race. Wildwood, nearly two hours south, hadn’t just survived Sandy relatively unscathed, but was a match made in hot-rod heaven, with its boardwalk amusement park and mid-century motels providing a perfectly nostalgic background. In 2013, the town welcomed Stultz and his cohorts with open arms.
The race has grown every year since. This year, there were close to 200 cars and bikes racing, and nearly 20,000 spectators soaking in the horsepower and listening to the wry commentary of the dapper, cigar-smoking Nick Foster, a cigar shop owner and Stultz’s former next door neighbor. Part of the race’s success stems from how it looks, right down to the battered period helmets. “Being here is like coming to this amazing time warp,” says medical assistant turned hot rodder Kevin Carlson, who hails from Bridgewater, Massachusetts. More appealing still is the sense of community the race has created. “It really is like a family, and people will do anything for each other,” says Francello, the flag girl. “A lot of these guys are real softies underneath it all. There’s so much emotion between them.”
This weekend, emotions are heightened by bike accidents involving two beloved members of the TROG community: Jeremiah Armenta and Atsushi Yasui, aka “Sushi,” a race legend who brings a ten-strong crew from Japan every year. Both are set to make full recoveries, but Stultz later admits to being shaken. “It hurts to see your friends like that,” he says. “But it shows just how real this is. These guys are hitting close to 80 miles an hour on a beach. You can’t fake that.”
Still, while Stultz considers new ways to minimize the risks involved and not sacrifice the soul of the event, he’s also planning to grow The Race of Gentlemen. On Labor Day weekend this year, he put on a series of oval track races for the 115th anniversary of Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee. He has unconfirmed plans to take TROG to Galveston, Texas, next year, and possibly take the race back to California, where it has previously been held at Pismo Beach. He’s even eyeing up potential overseas locations for the race, possibly including Australia and Japan.
“It feels like we’ve hit on something,” says Stultz. “People want this so bad. They’re tired of things being plastic and disposable. These cars and bikes hark back to a time when people built things to last, with their bare hands. It’s such a thrill to see guys like Gene coming to the race—there are fewer and fewer of these guys left, and we want to make sure that their spirit never dies.”