The Race of Gentlemen
Every October, tattooed and heavily bearded men (and a few women) gather in Wildwood, New Jersey, and take over a section of the beach. With beer on tap, loud music, and louder motorcycles and cars, this motley crew waits for the tide to recede and then grinds up the sand racing antique vehicles down a quarter-mile. Known as The Race of Gentlemen, the event at first seems to be one of the most wrongly named.
Until, at least, you spend a bit of time watching the participants. What at first appears to be a lawless takeover by various biker gangs is anything but. The dress code is the first clue. High, laced boots, paired with jodhpurs. Pilot and horseback riding helmets. Knit jerseys lettered with race events seven decades past. The women sport short bangs with long hair, beehives, and Rosie the Riveter styles, paired with high-waisted, pinstriped shorts.
Then there are the bikes. These aren’t the Harley-Davidsons you’ve seen on television. They are long. And old. Very old. Mixed in is the occasional Henderson and a smattering of Indians, all with huge engines. The cars are likewise all American: Mercury, Buick, Pontiac, Dodge, Plymouth, Ford, Chrysler. Each one a piece of moving history, and each one with a driver or rider whose knuckles show the years of effort it took to rebuild these machines to working order.
Then there are the smiles. Broad and warm, the smiles are constant. Every face is marked with joy, even when the car won’t run, even when the bike won’t start.
Then it becomes obvious that this isn’t a random gathering of ne’er do wells. This is a concerted effort to capture a specific time in history, and to relive the best parts of it. The cars are all American made, 1953 or older. The bikes are all American made, 1947 or older. The clothes, helmets, and goggles are also antique. And so is the definition of “Gentlemen.”
This gathering is, in fact, about being a gentleman. Those who build, enter, and race their machines exhibit the good, courteous, civilized, and polite conduct befitting the title. Despite the sand, the grease, the noise, the competition, and even the alcohol, each racer stays true to gentlemanly form: quick to lend a hand, always with a charming smile, undisturbed by adversity, and always stylish.
It is a set of values not of the present time, and the strict rules for entering the race make perfect sense:
The Race of Gentlemen is not about racing cars and motorcycles down a beach; The Race of Gentlemen is about recapturing the American can-do spirit, the generosity, the love of life, and the camaraderie that come from choosing to be part of the human race, as a gentleman. ◼︎
words and images by James Conley