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How to run in The Race of Gentlemen

Aug 15, 2016

Even if you are not an avid vintage motorcycle enthusiast, you’ve probably heard rumblings about an event called The Race of Gentlemen or seen photos of riders in old garb and older motorcycles riding on the beach.

You may have thought, “That looks like fun.” If you want to be part of the scene, here’s how you can.

The Race of Gentlemen is an old-school drag race held on the beaches of Wildwood, New Jersey. For you folks on the west coast, there is a Race of Gentlemen coming up October 15 and 16 on the beach in Pismo, California. It’s too late to enter this go round, but watching this first west coast edition could inspire you to build a racer for next year!

The Race of Gentlemen
The Race of Gentlemen. Photo by Godspeed Company.

The idea is to hold an event that is as close as possible to 1930s and 1940s racing, so entries are limited to period-correct cars and motorcycles built before the early post-war era. All vehicles must be American-made and all the parts must be period-correct, so leave your nitromethane motorcycle drag racer at home. Entries are selected from applications, so if you want to get in you have to follow the rules and the spirit (and style) of the event. Still, you can hit the beach with a slightly modified stock Harley or Indian and have a lot of fun, so let’s look at what it takes to put together a suitable machine.

First off, let’s set a budget. I know this is racing and that means being prepared to throw tons of money into the project for little or no return, but if you try to be reasonable you should assume you’ll spend around $10,000 to get on the beach.

Harley-Davidson W series
Here's what a standard WL from the mid-1940s looks like. Note that all W series have the chain drive on the right hand side. Photo by Panhead Jim.

Now I know you are thinking that you can’t possibly buy a running pre-1948 Harley-Davidson for that kind of money, but actually you can. Big Twin Knuckleheads and Flatheads are certainly off the table, but a smaller 45-cubic-inch W series that is more or less ready to ride can definitely be found for under $10,000. Production numbers for the W series were very high in the 1940s, since Harley produced some 60,000 WLAs for the war effort and it is rumored that enough spare parts were produced to build another 60,000 machines. That, along with the thousands of civilian WLs and thousands of Servi-cars which shared the same motor, means that finding a suitable machine for ripping up and down the beach a few times won’t be too much of a challenge. The other bonus is that there’s a separate class for 45s, so you don’t even have to compete against the faster Big Twins.

Linkert carburetor
Linkert carburetors were used on most vintage Harleys in the 1930s and 1940s. This means there are plenty of parts and various sizes available to choose from. Photo by Panhead Jim.

Once you have secured a running motorcycle, it is time to make it go faster. This obviously could encompass multiple articles, but to keep things simple you want to increase fuel/air mixture going into the motor as well as increasing the exhaust leaving the motor. Since we are trying to keep to a reasonable budget, your best option is to look for “bolt-on” horsepower increases and forego expensive motor work. Upgrades like a less restrictive air cleaner, larger carburetor and drag pipes can all help bump up your horsepower without breaking the bank. Keep in mind that you will need to research your new additions to maximize potential. Just buying the biggest carburetor is not going to help if it dumps more fuel into the cylinder than the engine can burn.

No need to worry too much about this, as you can employ that age-old racing technique of spying on your competitors to see what they are running on their machines. Before you get out your spy cameras and night vision goggles, though, I suggest following your competitors on social media. You should be able to figure out their secrets easily enough from the comfort of home.

Coker tires
Good tread is a must. These Firestone All Non Skid tires from Coker Tires have deep tread for improved traction and work just as well on road as off. Photo by Panhead Jim.

Next, you need to fit some offroad tires to your motorcycle to deal with the horrible traction provided by a sandy beach. Again, these need to be “period-correct,” so you can’t just order up a set of late-model knobbies. Companies like Coker Tire or Allstate Tire make new tires using vintage-style tread patterns.

Don’t forget to invest in some extra chains, too, because the sand is going to chew those up quickly and they will be in short supply in the pits on race day.

You’ll also want to drop as much weight from the machine as possible. Heavy extras like front fenders, luggage racks and headlights can be removed and put on eBay to recoup some of your expenses.  Also, consider your own “excess weight.” Dropping a few pounds from your midsection will be the cheapest bump in speed you’ll find.

beach riding
Even at low tide, traction can be an issue. Don't wander too far from the surf our you'll find yourself stuck fast. Photo by Panhead Jim.

With your machine more or less set up, it is time to practice. If you live near the ocean, check the local laws about when and where you can drive motor vehicles on the beaches near you. Obviously, you’ll also want to coordinate your practice runs with low tide, so you can ride on the hard, compacted sand and not up in the loose stuff by the dunes. If you don't have access to a beach, some other sandy off-road area is the next best option.

race start
Here's a good a example of the difference between easing off the clutch and dumping it. Photo by Godspeed Company.

Assuming you can already ride in the straight line, the two things you’ll need to practice are getting a quick start and shifting the gears. You’ll be riding a tank shift, so that may take some getting used to if you’ve only ridden foot-shifted motorcycles in the past. Regardless, you need to work on your technique for the start. You can’t just dump the clutch because you’ll find your rear tire digging a trench in the sand and your forward momentum being pretty pathetic.  It will take some experimentation to determine the right amount of throttle paired with the correct timing of engaging the clutch that provides the best traction.

hand shifter
Bird's-eye view of a three-speed shift gate. See how easy it would be to pull straight back from low to high and miss second altogether? Photo by Panhead Jim.

Once you get moving, shifting is going to be the next skill to master. Hand shifters have what is called a “shift gate” attached to the gas tank, which helps direct the shift lever into the proper position for each gear. Detents between second and third gears and between third and fourth gears keep you from jumping two gears at a time. It is possible to miss this detent completely, so it is important to push the shift lever against the left side of the shift gate when dropping into second and third gears to make sure you don’t miss them.

vintage racing gear
The Race of Gentlemen starter kit: Vintage helmet and goggles with glass lenses, wool racing sweater and leather gauntlet gloves. Photo by Panhead Jim.

Now that you are riding down the beach in a manner that won’t embarrass yourself, the last thing you need is the proper racing attire. Sure, you can show up in jeans and a T-shirt, but that is really not in the spirit of the race. Soft sand reduces the need for the absolute in protection, so many racers pick up a vintage half helmet and goggles along with one of those heavyweight wool race sweaters. These can still be ordered from Dehen Mills, which was one of the original manufacturers of racing sweaters back in the 1920s. Leather gauntlet gloves look the part along with a pair of tall riding boots.  With this outfit, you’ll look good whether you win or lose.

vintage racing
Look closely and you can see how much sand is on the lower portion of the bike after just a few passes down the beach. Once I was off the beach, had to really hose things down before riding home. Photo by Panhead Jim.

Sounds easier than you thought, right? For the price of a lightly used Sportster, you can own a real piece of history and get to be part of a popular amateur vintage drag racing event. Plus, you’ll have a great time doing it.