There's no shortage of mustachioed bravado in the grainy photos from the early days of motor racing. Men. Cars. Danger. The only thing missing from the frozen-in-time images is the smell of gasoline and the blatty roar of primitive engines.
Good news: It's not all gone.
For the fourth year in a row, an entire weekend has been dedicated to reliving the contents of those old photos on the beach in Wildwood, N.J., at the Race of Gentlemen. Despite a postponement of one week caused by a hurricane threat, crowds lined a racecourse at the shoreline to watch ancient hot rods go one-on-one in eighth-mile drag racing eliminations. Racers, some with the plush beards and mustaches like those stern-faced men in the old photographs, competed in Model T Fords and other Depression-era models with Flathead V-8s stuffed between their rusty fenders.
“My son and I find the event almost surrealistic,” said Brian Cholerton, who raced a pair of Ford Model A speedsters with his son, Matt. “This past Sunday we were waiting for our next run. Engine idling, helmet and goggles on, blue sky, bright sun, cheering crowd, flags waving and a biplane doing loops and turns over a picture-perfect ocean. For a moment I could have been in the ’30s. Things that one would only read about, we were doing."
A stout north wind was no match for cars that sputtered and popped as they clambered to the start line. For those that couldn't make it the eighth of a mile back once the race had been run, an antique tow truck stood by to drag them back down the beach.
If there was a theme among the contestants, it was getting some old pile running in time to make full-throttle runs down the beach. Ian Cuthbertson, who drove a 1924 Model T roadster powered by a Flathead V-8 from a 1937 Ford truck, said it took signing up for the race to get him moving on his project car.
“I've been building this car for six years, but I just finished this car in time for the race,” he said, adding that he had driven the car only a couple of times before shipping it from California. “It’s all cast-off parts. It only took me about $1,200 to build, although I got a lot of parts from friends.”
He must have done something right, because the car charged across the sand numerous times without blowing up.
One of the cars entered didn't even look like a car. Mike Barillaro, from Knoxville, Tenn., built his out of an auxiliary fuel tank from a World War II fighter plane. After the war, racers who ran on dry lakebeds out West picked up surplus tanks cheaply and turned them into racecar bodies. Barillaro said he bought his tank in Alabama, shoehorned a 221-cid Flathead into it and somehow had enough space left in the nose for a small seat and some pedals and levers.
There's also a camaraderie that develops among vintage racers; new friendships are formed and old ones are reinforced. For Cholerton, the hobby has been a way to spend time with his grown-up son.
“My son and I like the idea of making something that actually runs and drives,” he said. “These cars and any others to come have evolved into a common bond between us.”