The return of the gentlemen

The Race of Gentlemen, held on the beach in Wildwood, New Jersey, is helping to bring back the post-War golden age of hot rods

First published in American Way magazine, September 2018. Opening image and first shot of Mel by David Carlo, other photography by Myles Pritchard.

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Engines are roaring, old bikes are churning up 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, with its growling, gleaming engine exposed.

He’s on the starting line at the Race of Gentlemen, a series of period-perfect drag races, held every June 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 adrenaline-soaked history lesson you’ll ever see.   

Gene is ready for the rush he’s been chasing since the late 1940s, when as a 21-year-old he started taking his souped-up Ford 27-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 has helped keep him wiry and youthful, with a thick mop of black hair under his battered teal helmet.

Gene first worked on this particular Roadster in 1948—he’s customized and repaired it for five different owners through the years, and by rights 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. Gene looks on like a rugby player facing down a Maori haka. Then, as at the start of every race here, she leaps into the air, her tattooed legs curled behind her in a moment frozen in a thousand retro-filtered photos.

As she whips her flag down, there’s a spin of tires and a thick spray of sand, as gears engage and revs turn to raw power. Gene’s Roadster can’t quite grip on the grainy sand; 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 beach, overlooked by Wildwood’s Ferris Wheel and wooden rollercoaster. Gene’s powerful Roadster picks up pace, but it’s too late.  

Still, when I catch up with Gene in the pit area, after his first race on the sand, 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.”

Gene was there when it was new, as he tells me in between countless interruptions for selfies. In the mid-1940s, aged just 15, he started playing around with a 1928 Ford Model A, installing a fake antenna just so that 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.  

Gene 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, Gene 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 27-T Roadster to smash records at the El Mirage and Reno dry lakes, reaching 144.4mph at Reno in 1949. When he was called up again, this time to serve in the Army in Japan, he organised the country’s first ever stock car race in 1951, leaving the other GIs in his dust.   

Like many of the early hot-rodders, who were miscast as hoodlums, Gene was a technical pioneer. In the late 50s, he created the Winfield Fade, blending paint to create cars that looked like pieces of candy. He would go on to wow car nuts across America with wacky creations like the Winfield Reactor in 1965, a Space-Aged machine that would appear in Star Trek and Bewitched. His cars for movies like Blade Runner and Back to the Future 2 helped cement his heady reputation among folk who know the difference between a Flathead and a Nail Head.

Over the years, the popularity of hot-rodding has ebbed and flowed, fading in the 1960s because 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, Gene 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 Gene’s out-of-print first book, The Legendary Custom Cars and Hot Rods of Gene Winfield, will set you back close to $200.

Gene 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.”

People are tired of cookie-cutter cars. You need imagination, and ingenuity, to build a hot rod, and that challenge appeals to people.

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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.   

Mel 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 (or PIS). After a stint in the Marines after high school—and the realization that his band weren’t going to conquer the world—in the late ’90s found himself learning to “chop” a Ford Model A Sedan. 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 old bikes, standing on the saddle, hands-free, bare-foot and wild.

Mel was never interested in simply looking at old cars and bikes in shows. So, in 2010—while he made a living re-fitting 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 1940s by a Californian Navy vet called Jim Nelson, who—with echoes of Gene’s chicken coop—built hot rods on his parent’s turkey farm.      

Mel 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 1920s racing 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.”  

He 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.” Mel also liked that the acronym, TROG, nodded to troglodytes and the garage punk of the Troggs. “Besides,” he says. “You can be a gentleman and a punk.”

So, in the Fall of 2012, Mel ushered 15 cars and 15 bikes onto the beach at Allenhurst, as around 3,500 spectators turned up, many having seen Mel’s punkish home-made flyers. Mel had got his Oilers crew involved, and had plucked up the courage to ask Sara Francello, the “tough ass” barmaid at the bar he was re-fitting, if she would be the flag girl. Sara had no idea what a flag girl was, but agreed, even though she hates having her picture taken. Mel and Sara 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, and a 14-page feature in Hot Rod magazine was a clarion call to a whole community: “It shook the industry,” recalls Mel. “People just looked at the pictures and were like: What the Hell is this?”

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 Mel had to go searching for a new place to hold his race. Wildwood, an hour and a half 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 Mel and his cohorts with open arms.   

The race has grown every year since—this year, there are close to 200 cars and bikes racing, and nearly 20,000 spectators, listening to the wry commentary of the dapperly attired, cigar-smoking Nick Foster, a cigar shop owner and Mel’s former next door neighbor.

Part of the race’s success has been down to how it looks, right down to the battered period helmets, many inscribed with speed-based aphorisms like ‘Death rides a fast camel’. But the photographs don’t give a sense of the community the race has created. “It really is like a family, and people will do anything for each other,” says Sara, the flag girl and race manager. “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 Mel 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.”

These guys are hitting close to 80 miles an hour on a beach. You can’t fake that.

Still—while Mel considers new ways to minimise the risks involved, while not sacrificing the soul of his race—he’s also planning to grow the Race of Gentlemen. On Labor Day weekend this year, he is putting on a series of oval track races for the 115th anniversary of Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee. He has unconfirmed plans to take TROG to Galvesten, 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 Mel. “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.”

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