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Farewell to Oz

Published in blog.hemmings.com

While “Joseph J. Ossichak Jr.” is what heads his obituary, I’m not sure how many people actually knew him by that name. To much of the world, the now-iconic boss of the staging lanes at The Race of Gentlemen–clad in top hat, tails, and round, tinted safety glasses–was “Joe Oz,” “Oz,” or “The Great and Powerful Oz,” if you were feeling sassy.

The man, like his name, had a legend-worthy presence. That came in handy in the ground-rumbling chaos and barely restrained horsepower of the staging lanes at TROG, where tens of thousands of pounds of old iron and racers’ attitudes champed, and hoofed the sand.

For most racers, Joe only had to snap his bespectacled glare on them and poke his finger in the direction he wanted them to go to inspire action. Others, however–either because they were bewildered by the headiness of all that was going on around them, or because they didn’t know well enough to not be willful with Oz–were recipients of a red-faced New Jersey tirade that could somehow be felt, if not heard, over the roar of open pipes and crashing sea. In the end, everyone did exactly what Oz told them to do.

His job as the staging boss was to keep all the racers, his friends–and that included you–alive so you all could come back and play another day. And he took it very, very seriously.

But for all the menace he could muster in the staging lanes, Joe’s natural state was laughing with his arm around your shoulders, making you feel like you were a blood relative.

Mel Stultz, the ringleader of The Race of Gentlemen and one of Joe’s best friends, explains that you always knew when Joe had arrived because you’d hear him hit the siren and flashing lights on his 1945 Indian Chief. “Joe was always the life of the party,” Mel says. “Even if there was drama going on, he was a ray of sunshine. He couldn’t understand why people just couldn’t be happy.”

Joe was involved with TROG from the very beginning. His son had worked for Mel back when Mel ran a rock ‘n’ roll club called Asbury Lanes in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and when Mel kicked off a vintage drag-racing event called “Motor Speedway” on Englishtown’s original 1/8th-mile track, Joe, an avid vintage Indian motorcycle fan, was there.

From that point on the pair, along with Jeff “Hollywood” Baer, were just about inseparable–riding, hanging out, and going to swap meets together. Joe was a fixture at swap meets, often camping out in his van and grilling while he sold old parts and World War II items.

Then, The Race of Gentlemen kicked off for the first time on the beach in Asbury Park–this was in 2012–and the “Three Musketeers” along with the Oilers C.C./M.C. were at the center of it. The idea for the name of the event had come from a book Mel had been reading at the time about how racers in the golden days would just take off their jackets and roll up their sleeves and race in their shirts and ties. He liked the idea of burly bearded guys with tattoos rolling into town to race like gentlemen.

Joe, who was to oversee the staging lanes, was a professional DJ and owned a tuxedo. He decided that he was going to live up to the event’s name… and then some. “We said, no, no, no, Joe. You are not going to wear a damn tux,” Mel remembers. “And he showed up in one anyway. He didn’t care if it was embarrassing. He was going to do what he wanted to do.”

And thus was the origin of Joe Oz’s TROG uniform, which, ironically, turned out to not be embarrassing at all. It was easy to spot in the fray and lent even more gravity to his presence.

If you look back at photos from near the end of that first race, you’ll notice that his white shirt is stained with blood near his heart. The sutures from his first pacemaker surgery had torn. Nothing, he said, could have kept him from that race.

Since then, Joe Oz has appeared in tens of thousands of fan photos, as well as in magazines, internationally broadcast television shows, and even paintings. The tux itself has been displayed–along with the other most-recognizable uniform of the event, flag-girl Sara Francello’s H-D “jump suit”–in a glass case in the Harley-Davidson Museum’s 2017 exhibit on TROG, a fact that the fairly humble Joe never ceased to get a real kick out of. He had always wanted Mel to make T-shirts with tuxes printed on them, partly to goad him about the outfit working so well, and partly so everyone could join in the lighthearted fun.

Seven years of TROG events, and Joe never missed a single one as staging boss, National Anthem flag bearer, and friend. Then, prior to the Santa Barbara Drags presented by TROG this past March 8-9, Joe’s pacemaker started giving him some trouble again and he was admitted to the hospital, forced to watch (and worry) from the sidelines 3,000 miles away.

On March 30, 2019, Joe passed away in his home in Brick, New Jersey, the result of ongoing complications with his heart. He is survived by his wife, Connie, their son, Joseph J. Ossichak III, and their daughter, Bonnie Ossichak, along with Joe’s brother, Robert Ossichak, and Joe’s two grandsons Shane Puente-Duany and Milo Ossichak, and has been evident from all of the posts on social media over the last few days… thousands and thousands of friends.

Now, for a second, let me stop being a journalist and say this has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write. How to properly eulogize Joe? What could possibly do him justice? What could express the profound sense of loss that so many are feeling right now? How to put the pen down on his life?

Maybe the best way to handle the last question is to share the last memory I have of him, mainly because it so embodies how Joe was with so many people. And maybe because it’s just what I really need to hear again right now…

At the end of the last Race of Gentlemen, as we were all packing up and getting ready to leave, in that kind of coming-down numbness that happens afterward when everyone is feeling the absence of this amazing thing that we do and turning their attention to getting on the road, Joe stopped me. He gave me one of his bear hugs, and the big, tough, legendary staging boss of TROG said, “I love you brother. I’ll see ya around.”

Joe Oz in one of his other favorite places, with his grandson Shane who is at the controls of Joe’s 1958 Cuchman Eagle.

A viewing will be held at Laurelton Memorial Funeral Home, located at 109 Pier Avenue, Brick, New Jersey 08723 on Wednesday, April 3, 2019, from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. with a service at 7:30 p.m.