The Race of Gentlemen is best known for Instagram-worthy images of vintage cars and motorcycles blasting down the beaches of New Jersey. But on March 8-9th they took their show to the asphalt in Santa Barbara, California to celebrate the hot rod culture of yesteryear. The atmosphere was fun and light despite the racing being serious (for most).
Keeping the race distance short helped keep most of the pre-1947 vehicle’s speed down, though as racers laid down some rubber on the start-line and got their engines dialed in, many runs became downright frightening. Most of the cars didn’t have roofs, let alone roll-cages, making them look as dangerous as the bikes. However, with most riders opting for period-correct gear, there were a lot of woolen sweaters, pudding bowl helmets, and blue jeans to make sure the bikes didn’t lose to the cars on “wow” factor.
Given the age of the bikes and the fact that they were hot-rodded using near-unobtainable, period correct hop-up parts, I was expecting to find the pits full of rich, stuffed-shirt types. Instead, I found a diverse group of riders that refused to be defined. They ranged in age from their 30’s to their 70’s. There were tattooed greasers and proper looking gentlemen in button-down shirts. There were teams whose tow rigs probably cost more than everything the team next to them had. When I walked by a group of rockabilly looking racers, they were speaking German. There were far more smiles than sneers.
Despite this diversity, everyone got along because they were there for the same reason: going fast with old machines. While hanging out near staging I kept asking riders and drivers what their goal was for the next run. Answers were usually along the line of, “making it back,” or, “getting into second gear.” Both might sound easy, but if you’re running a 95-year-old engine, just making it to the starting line can be tough. And second gear? With a foot clutch and tank shift, things are happening fast on those concrete walls. Then you have to get things slowed down on cable-operated drum brakes. Good times.
Outside of the racing, there was also a lot to see. In fact, Friday was only for registration and the pre-party, which featured custom bikes from local builders as well as some of the race bikes that would run on Saturday. Plenty of beer and food vendors were available, from tri-tip sandwiches to Drakes Bay Oysters (so good).
Harley-Davidson saw the value and ran a live webcast, which hopefully got some eyeballs on the event because the crowd on-hand was a bit thin for this inaugural event. I’m not sure why honestly, other than the 1st of any event is usually like that. At least we could all say, “I was at the Santa Barbara Drags before it was cool, maaaan.” The location was cool, the racing was great, and the pits doubled as the coolest car show for hundreds of miles. They even had an afterparty that meant you weren’t required to fight traffic if you didn’t want to.
The Friday night pre-party was chilly so most people were inside the hotel. The diehards stayed outside to check out the cars and bikes.
And traffic was probably the biggest complaint I had. With the hotel parking lot off limits and two of the roads around the hotel closed for the track and access roads, it was chaos getting out or finding a place to park. That could easily be chalked up to a first-time event learning curve. Once inside there were plenty of places to view the racing and the only line was for the merchandise booth, which somehow managed to have people queued up all day.
The event had a unique vibe in that it combined elements of the posh Goodwood Festival in the UK, yet also feeling like a car show at the local donut shop. While bikes roared down the track, dogs caught frisbees and families ate lunch on the grass… then Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom walked by trying to look incognito. I’ve definitely not seen anything quite like the Santa Barbara drags.
The crowd was a bit thin for this first-time event but they ranged from diehard gearheads to people enjoying some sun and fun.
And from a technical standpoint, the vibe was different as well. Using a flagger to signal the start instead of a Christmas tree of lights added to the old-school authenticity. Not having a burnout pit also meant the machines—already on reproduction tires—struggled for traction as they launched. Watching a 1930’s Harley skewing sideways while the rider operates a foot clutch is a helluva sight. I’m also happy watching a nitro-burning Pro-Stock bike try to break 200mph mind you, but it’s apples and oranges.
And that’s probably the biggest take away from the Santa Barbara Drags. You don’t have to be a gearhead to enjoy it. Obviously, the roar of engines and the smell of leaded race fuel is going to make bikers happy, but the amount of hand-made parts and organic curves on old machines will draw in anyone that loves vintage design.
Riders and drivers had big smiles during their return runs to the pits, where the crowd was close enough to cheer their support.
If you missed the Santa Barbara Drags it’s understandable. The Race of Gentlemen website can be tricky to navigate and the social media is more dedicated to sharing cool video and pictures than promoting future events. Still, the information is there and you can contact the organizers to tell them you want them back for 2020. With their base of operations in New Jersey, it is no mean feat to export their unique type of event to the left coast.
Cars and Bikes using period correct hop up parts still range in power, build quality, and sound.
Mind if I smoke?
By: Johnny Killmore / @johnnykillmore