TROG ’21: Through the Lens of John Helmuth
My New Jersey trip started sometime in the middle of the night on a lonely stretch of expressway between Philadelphia and the Atlantic Ocean. Running on pure adrenaline, I gripped the wheel of a futuristic German supercar that, for whatever reason, the fine folks at the rental company thought would be a suitable replacement for my missing sedan. The numbers on the digital speedometer continued to climb. Big trees, small trees, oversize signs and off-ramps made momentary appearances, only to be swallowed by the darkness.
I scanned my surroundings, then checked the clock again. It was half-past three a.m. I was the only one left on earth. That didn’t matter. Nothing did. “We’re gonna make it,” I told myself, turning up some Post Malone on Spotify. “There’s no stopping now.”
A few hours later, I woke up at the Aztec Motel in the beach town of Wildwood, New Jersey. The morning light cut through the blinds, bringing my beach-themed room into focus. I rubbed my eyes. The past 24 hours had been a dizzying mess. With four delayed flights and one lost rental car, it took a grand total of 18 hours to make it to Room 118’s doorstep. Nonetheless, I was there. And I had a job to do.
As I lumbered to life, I felt a hint of jealousy. The rest of the world had a head start on the day. And this wasn’t just any day. This was Saturday, October 2nd—the first day of The Race of Gentlemen.
Boogie on the Boardwalk
Although I’ve never been to the East Coast for T.R.O.G., I could feel the excitement in the air as I trudged down Atlantic Avenue with half my weight in camera equipment strapped to my back. The closer I got to the beach, the more and more I felt like something big was about to happen. I popped up on the boardwalk. Navigating my way through the crowd, I peered up at the unmistakable skyline of twisted roller coaster tracks, thrill rides and one enormous Ferris Wheel. “There it is,” I said to myself. “The Jersey Shore.”
Wildwood’s Surfside Pier was in full swing. Hot rodders from around the globe were all there for the same reason as I was: to see some of the country’s best traditional hot rods and motorcycles square off in an eighth mile beach race like none other. This event has gained a cult-like following in the past decade, thanks to founder Mel Stultz and the Oilers Car Club.
While wandering around the boardwalk, I thought back to past articles about the race. I had written some, while others journalists painted the picture in their own way. I was itching to jump in the sand and get to work. Mid-thought, I heard a familiar voice off in the distance. It was none other than John Helmuth.
Donned in a wide-brimmed hat and horn-rimmed sunglasses, John greeted me with a handshake and a smile. He and I had planned to meet up the previous evening at the Night of the Troglodytes chopper party, but the airline had other ideas. John still went and captured the debauchery in 35mm.
I was sad I missed it, but that was in the past. Yes! On that sunny Saturday morning, me, John, and our friend (and fellow photographer) Ben MacMaster grabbed our media credentials and walked into The Race of Gentlemen.
For the next two days, the three of us covered the event. It wasn’t long before we met up with Xander Cesari, another talented photographer and fellow Michigander. The four of us became a ragtag press corps of sorts, all telling our own versions of The Race of Gentlemen story. Film and digital, stills and video, whatever it was, we were there. That weekend, we worked together, bouncing ideas off each other and having each other’s backs while trying to get the shot. Don’t get me wrong, it was chaos out there on that beach—and that’s what made it so damn fun.
Flatheads. Bangers. Inliners and OHVs. Chopped tops, dropped axles, patina and show-quality paint. Old chrome, new chrome, cars with no chrome at all. The scene on the pits and on the track was nothing short of extraordinary. It became immediately clear that people didn’t come here for parade laps. Not by a longshot. Instead, they showed up to push their machines to the limit. Traction was minimal at best, but that didn’t prevent anyone from ripping down the beach for all they’re worth.
The Race of Gentlemen experience is made up of thousands of small moments—moments that you have to look closely to find. Sure, there are revving engines, rapping pipes and spinning tires. But there’s more to it. A whole lot more.
John Helmuth knows how to capture those moments. Armed with his Leica M9 and 35mm Yashica T2, he brings people and places to life in an intimate way. It’s a style that you don’t often see in the automotive world, and there’s no denying that it’s a refreshing change of pace.
Born and raised in New Jersey, John has attended every Race of Gentlemen since its inception in 2012. When he reached out about teaming up for a Jalopy Journal feature this year, I immediately jumped on the opportunity.
So, without further ado, I’d like to share John Helmuth’s Race of Gentlemen coverage. With any luck, we’ll have more from him in the not-so-distant future. Until next time, Wildwood!
Photography by John Helmuth