Experience Vintage Beachside Drag Racing At Denmark’s Rømø Motor Festival
Photography by Craig Callum
The Rømø Motor Festival started for me this year like all the best hot-rodding stories should; it was the week before the big race and my car had an empty engine bay and no certain timing on when the parts would arrive.
The event for which I was so prepared takes place at the beginning of September on Lakolk Beach on the island of Rømø off the west coast of Denmark. Its geography means that the most western shore of the island consists of a 14km-long beach of hard packed sand. This area is perfect for racing, and so much so that the early days of speed trials used to take place on the neighboring island of Fanø, with Sir Malcolm Campbell testing a number of times there until an accident drove the speed seekers away, but that is another story for another day.
Back to Rømø Motor Festival, or “RMF.” 2017 marked only its second year of running, but it is already becoming a hugely popular date in the calendar for vintage racers, as evidenced by the crowds of people who’d come to compete and spectate. To me it is right up there with Pismo Beach’s Race of Gentlemen in the US, and the VHRA Pendine Sands speed trials on the Welsh coast.
So yeah, you can tell I had a good time, but what is this event? The RMF offers places to all racers of vehicles built before 1947, with only tuning of the period allowed—you will not find a small block here. It’s back to basics, grassroots racing. That is, if you can call the American LaFrance 27-liter V12 monster grass roots.
The entries vary massively, from the aforementioned behemoth, to Harley Davidsons that deserve to be collecting dust in museums. The racers’ backgrounds vary nearly as much, with some traveling from as far as the South of France, UK, Norway, and the outer reaches of Sweden. And then there was me, who had just a small 100km drive to get here. That was, if the engine was to arrive in time. Thankfully but with little buffer time, the motor cleared customs on Tuesday, having been shipped from H & H Antique in LA many weeks previously, and after a few phone calls, collected immediately and due to be delivered to my workshop on Wednesday, giving me just 24 hours to fit the motor and drive to technical inspection midday on Friday.
Inevitably, the motor arrived end of the day Wednesday, and so first thing Thursday morning I donned my overalls and got started clearing the way for the new block to sit between the near-90-year-old frame rails. This is where the magic started to happen. My phone kept buzzing and pinging with messages from other racers who had heard of my predicament. Before long, I had five fellow competitors there ready to get wrenching on my car to help get me to inspection on time! I really could not have done it without them, and after 12 hours the car was spluttering down the road. We tuned it up as best we could and headed for inspection the next day after wiring up what little electrics 1931 had to offer. The inspection was only halfway over when I got to the makeshift drivers hall. As friendly eyes lit up to see my oily, exhausted face, I knew everything would be ok and the weekend was due to be a good one.
Though it’s a bit odd to talk about history of year-old events, let’s talk about the origins of the RMF. The competition was started by a small team of enthusiasts, Thomas Toft Bredahl and Carsten Bech, with Finn Andresen, Steffen Sonnberg, and Holger Sonnberg. Without their enthusiasm for vintage lunacy, this wonderful event would never have made it past the bureaucracy of local communes. Part of the reason for the race falling so late in the summer is that the local councils would only allow it to be run when summer had passed and the beach would be quieter and less populated. On this weekend though it was anything but silent and empty, as the queue to the beach this year was over 12km long, and the number of people watching was north of 5,000.
This year saw the entrant list stretched beyond 80 vehicles, but the 200m head-to-head drag strip is completed in mere seconds, which means that despite the large group you can pack in plenty of races to the point where it’s almost continuous; by the time you have run and returned you are back at the start and challenging your next victim. It’s friendly rivalry, and it’s fun and addictive in ways only drag racing can be—you want to go round and round, you rerun every moment thinking what you could have done differently, how you could have been better, and then, you get to put it into practice a few minutes later!
Then there is the style. These people not only know how to race an old car, they also rock a mean mustache. Much like the Revival, RMF has a strict dress code to ensure everything looks period correct. There is not a competitor who does not adhere to the rules in this regard, and the commitment pays off, delivering a little window into the past on this foggy beach.
Time passes quickly here between the breakdowns, repairs, and races. However, this year ended with a bang. Racing is a risk at the best of times, but adding the extra element of 90-year-old machines and you are playing with fire. Which is precisely what Konstabel Palm had on his hands when his piston tore through the cylinder wall of his 1928 Harley Davidson JD, puncturing the tank and dumping its contents. The resulting fireball scorched his eyebrows and left his hands blistered, but otherwise he escaped unscathed. The bike was not so lucky, but with a big smile Palm was sourcing parts before his wounds had even healed, proclaiming to return next year on the same—albeit reworked—Harley.
The explosion and resulting clean up marked the end of the day’s racing for this year’s Rømø Motor Festival, but no one let it lower the excitement surrounding the anticipation of its return next year.
Oh, and my motor? Well it ran well, very well, but without any real tuning time we were always fighting an uphill battle. We chased issue after issue until finally the gearbox gave signs it was ready to stop…at which point the crank pulley disintegrated (narrowly missing my “chief-mechanic”) and we called it a day. That is exactly how it should be though, true hot-rodding. Besides, it means I can safely say that next year we will be faster.
The prize-giving that evening saw Adrian Smith in his Buckland Special with the fastest average speed for cars at a pace of 68.25 mph, not bad for a 200m run on sand! The fastest bike hailed from Sweden, with Christer Fagerberg on his Husqvarna 500TT Factory Racer crossing the line with a 61mph average. I was awarded the Pratts Speed Department’s “Most Valiant Efforts to Enter the Race” for my week of blood, sweat, and tears. A special mention should go to the ladies of Rømø for the female entrants this year, Katharina Guffanti and Clara Erixon, the latter only receiving her driving license within the last year!
RMF is without a doubt the most fun and quirky of vintage racing events in Europe that I’ve attended, bringing together an eclectic mix of weathered metal on the sand for the entertainment of the spectators (and the entrants). If you happen to find yourself free at the end of the summer (and even if you don’t), try to get yourself to Denmark if you are a fan of this kind of racing. Drive to the beach and witness this crazy little slice of yesteryear for yourself. I will be there again, most likely repairing my car, and maybe sometimes racing it, but either way grinning ear-to-ear surrounded by friends old and new. I hope to see you there.