It's nearly impossible to hear the announcer over the engines revving up. Some of the syllables are noticeable, but beyond that, it's mostly just small sounds eaten up big bigger, louder ones on Wildwood Beach on a warm June day. Instead of people relaxing and tanning, the sand is filled with cars and motorcycles that were built in the days before and immediately after the Second World War, captioned by drivers are anxiously awaiting for their heat to start. The flag girl standing between the two racers checks with the driver to see if they're ready. They acknowledge her with slight nods and rev their engines. The flag goes down and sand flies up as the racers peel out vying to get an early lead. As the riders disappear into the distance at speeds over 70 miles per hour, the crowd cheers them both as the winning driver crosses the finish line.
The Race of Gentlemen (TROG) takes place in Wildwood, New Jersey. It's a mix of motorcycle and hot rod racing, but with a very particular twist. To qualify for the race, all cars and motorbikes must be pre -1950s, each with accurate parts and tires from that era. A crowd of almost 15,000 people make their way to this Jersey beach town each year to compete or cheer their favorite driver.
TROG began in 2008, when founder Mel Stultz and 10 members of the reformed motorcycle club 'The Oilers' wanted to create a race that kept tradition of pre -1950s racing alive. The concept was simple: push these machines to the limit by drag racing them at high speeds on a beach. "We pick the fastest, baddest, coolest bikes all across the world," Stultz says. A bad ass bike was not the only requirement for entry according to Mel, "someone's character….it has to speak to you." TROG is all about characters and each one is more interesting than the last.
Entry to race is open to people from all across the globe, and they come to Wildwood to race cars and bikes they have rebuilt and, in some cases, spent years agonizing over. While racing is the main draw, enthusiasts also catch-up with one another from previous races. After nearly a decade, it's like a yearly reunion over three days.
Inspection day, which opens things up, is reminiscent of a car show, however, it was apparent there was one crucial difference. While auto shows focus on pristine condition and detail, the owners that make it to New Jersey put their rides together with performance as the primary objective. Cars and motorcycles are beat to hell and mismatched, but as long as they start and go fast that's all that matters. Each hot rod and motorcycle has it's own unique personality that was a window to its owner. Whether it was a certain phrase painted on a rusted gas tank or a custom shifter knob, these special touches make each ride stand apart.
While inspections were happening throughout the day, a large group of racers were still assembling and making final tweaks to their rides. A hot-rod racer from Long Island named TJ had towed his hot ride from home. He was still assembling the frame and axles together in the parking lot. Thinking that there would be no chance that this hot rod that laid in the in two pieces would ever be ready in time, TJ was confident it would be ready in "half-an-hour."
Winners of TROG take home parts that can be used on their ride, but the most important trophy of it all is the bragging rights. Being able to own that badge on your shoulder for a whole year without question. Undisputed.
I meet two new racers to TROG – Jennifer Sheets and Crystal Geisey. Both friends and racing their vintage bikes in the hopes to become the first female motorcycle TROG winner. This isn't their first weekend on the beach in New Jersey – last year they came as part of the pit crew – but this marks their first time racing on the track. Crystal's motorcycle was given to her in lieu of an engagement ring. She worked all year for her moment to prove her creation can face off against anyone.
On race day, cars and bikes wait in line at 7 a.m. to enter the beach. As each car crosses the sandy beach, racers focus on the day's events and envisioned themselves crossing that finish line. As engines boom and snarl, spectators fill the rafters trying to find the perfect spot to watch.
Crystal and Jennifer roll up to the starting line for their race. As they wait for the flag to drop and signal the beginning. Crystal's mantra is "don't stall." For Jennifer, her nerves are relaxed, "everything out here disappears, it's quiet ... and try to keep it on two wheels," she says before the start. The flag is down and Jennifer hits the gas and speeds off. Crystal's bike sputters forward and dies shortly after leaving the starting line – the mantra doesn't work. Jen takes the win without contest. While stalling may be a worry for racers, nothing beats having your ride die mid-race. An entire year's worth of work and hope can disappear in a second.
Crystal walks her bike with a look of disappointment. Is this the end of her racing career? "No way," she says. "I'm going to get it fixed and head back out there." Fellow racers rush over and begin working on the bike trying to find the cause for the bike failure. Jennifer explains that "as much as you wrench on these things, I think they are their own individual spirits and they do have a tendency to break down on you." The races continue as the Crystal's bike is looked over and tinkered with. They happen every minute and the sand on the beach is not cooperative. Traction is becoming a major concern as racers begin skidding at the starting line hoping their ride will straighten out. As each race finishes another starts up and it doesn't end until the sun goes down.
There's a bond among the TROG riders and fans who have flocked to the beach year after year, it's borne out of a love of adrenaline and a respect for tradition. As Crystal shows, while winning the TROG cup would be a perfect ending to the weekend, it is secondary. Even though she was never able to finish a race (her bike died twice more at the line), it's obvious winning wasn't the only reason she brought her motorcycle to the beach. Thankfully, like the old saying goes, there's always next year.