Open Menu
Open Menu

Esprit de hardcore: Pismo Race of Gentlemen 2016

Published in


The flag drops and the hammer’s down at The Race of Gentlemen on Pismo Beach. Photo by Jeff Koch.

It rained at Woodstock in 1969. More than 400,000 people showed up and made the best of it despite the mud, and it went down as a pivotal event in music and social history. While the first West Coast Race of Gentlemen this past October 15-16 won’t leave quite as profound a stamp on the course of human events, some attendees referenced that legendary music festival when they spoke of how lucky they felt to have been there.

Besides being the first one to be held outside its birthplace in New Jersey, what made this Race of Gentlemen so special?

Well, for starters, while a few people who had gone previously to The Race of Gentlemen—TROG—expressed dismay at seeing what they felt was unique to their Right Coast being offered on the left, California’s prominent role in the annals of hot rodding is undeniable, and this was a rare opportunity to witness a good number of truly historic cars racing on the beach.


Barney Navarro’s famed roadster not only made an appearance at TROG, it raced! Photo by the author.

Then, as at Woodstock, the West Coast TROG had rain. Two days before the event, USA Today was reporting that 16 trillion gallons of precipitation was being forecasted to fall on California and the Northwest that weekend, as the scraps of Super Typhoon Songda tangled up with another storm and made landfall. People we spoke with at the race said that Pismo Beach, where the race was being held, had been experiencing a drought and had not seen significant rain in two years, or a storm as powerful as this in 30.

The wicked irony of it all is that, while mounting a California TROG had always been a dream of organizers Mel Stultz and Bobby Green, the other reason for moving the popular event there had been to escape the hurricanes and storms that tended to harry it on its original autumn date in Wildwood, New Jersey. (Wildwood now hosts its TROG in the spring.)

Saturday morning dawned to a fairly steady drizzle combined with temperatures in the fifties, conditions which, over the course of the day made anyone without a slicker and an umbrella or a hot engine in front of them shiver uncontrollably.


Despite the nasty weather, West Coast flagger, Lindsey “Zee” Karnopp smiles as she makes her way through the pits. Photo by the author.

But it wasn’t the rain that caused the event to start late and that resulted in the cancellation of nighttime festivities and racing on Sunday. It was the tide, which, swelled by the storm, came much farther onto the beach Saturday morning, drowning part of the access road, sliding up over the packed strand where racing would happen and stopping just short of the bleachers and vendor tents.


Crews work tirelessly on Saturday to put things aright on the track as the tide recedes. 

Saturday night and Sunday promised seas that would be two feet higher than the previous day’s, which threatened to drag the leased safety barriers into the ocean, causing the company that owned them to drain the water from them and move them to higher ground. To replace the barriers and refill them, the organizers were told, would take 10 hours, making running on Sunday entirely unfeasible, considering that the storm surge would give up the racing surface for only one or two hours during low tide.

Why did bad weather make this event special? Because, in spite of the rain and the prospect that racing might not happen, hundreds of racers nevertheless readied their cars and motorcycles, dozens of organizers and staff slogged to make ready, and 12,000 to 14,000 stalwart spectators perched on the dunes and along the track.


Rain isn’t dampening the spirits of Mark Jarel in his ’29 A/V-8 or the scores of other racers staging for heads-up racing down the beach. Photo by the author.

There were rain-drenched smiles everywhere and an esprit de corps that proved that the kind of person who likes racing old iron is not only unperturbed by inclement weather, but actually revels in the challenge of it. One of the organizers, gesturing around him at all the activity, declared it best, and his statement came to be often repeated: “These are not fair-weather friends. These are all-weather friends!”


David Wheeler in his Rajo-equiped ’23 Ford speedster is joined by Katie Hill who raced a ’27 T/V-8 roadster.

Organizer Bobby Green explains that, for him, his low and high points came close together Saturday morning. He knew that everyone was ready and willing to race, and the track had been prepared, but he kept thinking someone was going to call it or a permit would be revoked. “I was waiting for that to happen, and then as soon as cars started coming down into the pit … then the excitement started to build. And then when we actually started racing, that was my highest high. When the first cars went, I was on top of the world.”


And yet, again perhaps not unlike Woodstock, a West Coast TROG may have been a one-time happening. Just a drop of ink in the history books. Heavy state and local regulation, as well as high overall costs—coupled with the fact that money was lost because so little of the event could happen—makes a repeat uncertain.

Organizers lament that it seemed like every time they thought all was in order, they’d be hit with new requirements, paperwork and fees. They estimate that the cost of putting on The Race of Gentlemen in Pismo was around three times that of what it is in Wildwood and took untold more hours of work.


And, contrary to some grumblings, TROG has not sold out to corporate sponsorship. “We’ve had the same sponsors for the last five years,” Bobby says. “This thing wouldn’t exist at all if we hadn’t had Harley-Davidson, Small Town Brewery, Craftsman, Sailor Jerry and Hemmings.”

That kind of funding, he explains is important, and covers about 75 percent of what it costs to mount Wildwood, but only a little more than a quarter of Pismo’s tab. Everything else has to be made up by ticket and merchandise sales. And, Bobby adds, “We still only do business with American brands, brands that represent what we’re about… Nothing has changed.”

While in speaking with Mel Stultz, the visionary who began The Race of Gentlemen, it was clear that he felt deflated because of the damage the weather had done to his dream of a West Coast event, he couldn’t help recognizing that it was still something pretty special.

“I was blown away to have Mooneyes finally get on board with this,” Mel enthuses, “and to bring out their streamliner… I was so pumped to see the 990 car, Tom McIntyre’s killer car … watching the Navarro car and Vic Edelbrock’s car go down the race track – unbelievable. I got to hang out with Robert Williams … it was really cool to rub elbows with all those Californians – some heroes, some peers, some new friends. It’s odd, it felt like a financial loss, but being patted on the back by people you’ve respected for 20 years … was mind boggling.”

Hopefully, this year’s Race of Gentlemen on Pismo Beach doesn’t turn out to be exactly like Woodstock, a once-in-history event, fondly remembered and never repeated. But, for those of us who were there, working together on that cold and rainy day in October, throwing down the iron in the teeth of the storm, perhaps it already is.

Stay tuned to the Hemmings DailyHemmings Motor News and Hemmings Muscle Machines for upcoming features on some of the cars and motorcycles found at this year’s West Coast Race of Gentlemen. And for those who prefer their TROG action on the Right Coast, watch for the announcement of Wildwood’s date. In Mel’s words, he’s coming out swinging’. This promises to be the best one yet!