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Sand Blast: How a Historic Beach Race Sparked a Dealership Dynasty



Sheryll Poe, Profile Picture, 175x175

Sheryll Poe


Despite days of rain and sloppy driving conditions, the race would go on. Day one of the Cape May automobile speed trials on August 25, 1905, had started off fair and sunny before heavy rains made the 2-mile stretch of sand between Madison Avenue and Sewell’s Point in Cape May, N.J. (known as the “Cape May Speedway”), spongy and difficult to drive.

The second day of the trials was hardly any better, but the crowd of 20,000 lining the 2-mile boardwalk was restless and ready to see America’s greatest driving experts, including Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet, A.L. Campbell and J. Walter Christie, compete to set a new world record.

When the race was over, Chevrolet’s 120-hp Fiat (shipped from Italy, of course) was disabled by a soft spot in the sand, Ford’s Model K “Beach Skimmer” was hit by a wave and knocked out of the race, and Christie’s “Blue Flyer” struggled as well. Campbell took first place in his 80-hp Darracq known as the “Red Devil,” completing the 1-mile race in 38 seconds.

In the Cape May crowd on that historic day in automotive history was 13-year-old Raymond Burke Sr. from nearby Wildwood. “My grandfather used to go down there and watch the beach races, and he became enthralled with the idea of the automobile,” says David Burke of the Burke Motor Group.

In 1912, Raymond Burke Sr., at age 20, opened the first gas station in Wildwood. Soon thereafter, he began getting franchise deals to sell Argo cars, Republic trucks, Indian motorcycles, and Dodge cars and trucks. “That’s how they did it back then,” David Burke says. “They looked for gas stations and asked the owners if they wanted to sell cars.”

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Burke Sr. continued to grow his automobile empire, adding Chevrolet and Oldsmobile franchises and building a new service station and showroom facility in Cape May Court House.

But by the end of World War II, the Burke dealerships were struggling, as auto factories had been converted to build military vehicles early in the war, leaving dealers with no cars to sell. Raymond Burke Jr. was a master chief petty officer in the Navy with plans to continue his naval career until he got a telegram from his father. “The telegram said, ‘I need help. I’m out of money.’ So that’s how my dad got into the business—to bail out my grandfather,” David says.

Burke Jr. worked with his dad until an opportunity became available to become his own Chevrolet dealer in Wildwood. It was there that he added on more franchises.

As an independent dealer, Burke Jr. was a natural, proving to be just as bold and ambitious as his father. While attending a Chevrolet meeting in Detroit, Burke Jr. made an impromptu visit to the office of Cadillac’s top executive to let him know that he wanted to be a Cadillac dealer. “Three months later he got a telegram that he was going to be a franchisee,” says David.

Rising From the Ashes

In 1970, disaster struck. At 3pm on Raymond Burke Sr.’s 78th birthday, an electrical fire started on the second floor of the Cape May Court House dealership. The whole store, which had just been remodeled and held copious amounts of Burke family and business memorabilia, burned to the ground.

David Burke, then in sixth grade, spotted the fire from the school bus. “I saw my dad go into the building trying to get the accounts receivable [files], but the bus driver would not let me off the school bus,” David says. “I had to ride 30 more minutes to get home.”

It took four hours to put out the fire, and everything—including new vehicles, cars in for repairs and all of the business records—was destroyed. “Part of the reason we feel so attached to the community is that people knew we had lost all of our [payment] records but came in and paid their bills anyway,” David says.

Rebuilding would take a while, but by the mid-1970s and into the 1980s, David, his brother Ray III, sister Kathy and brother-in-law Steve, had all joined the family business, running dealerships selling Subarus, Cadillacs and Chevrolets.

Over the next 20 years, the family bought franchises, consolidated brands and locations, and continued to adapt and grow. By 1987, all three Burkes had merged their various dealerships, and Burke Motor Group moved to a new Cape May Court House facility.

Among the trio’s accomplishments were Ray III’s stint as chairman of NJ CAR and New Jersey Time Magazine Quality Dealer of the Year. Kathy was one of the youngest and among only a handful of female VW dealers in the nation. Dave served many terms on the executive dealer boards for multiple franchises and was recognized by Cadillac for Dealer Excellence.

In 2013, David’s son Doug joined the dealership, becoming the fourth generation of Burkes to be involved in the family business. In 2022, Doug became the Dealer Operator for all franchises at Burke Motor Group. Doug is also an attorney and served as president of the Cape May Bar Association and immediate past president of the Cape May Chamber of Commerce.

The Burke Promise to Give Back

The Burkes have never forgotten the support that the community gave the family and business after the 1970 fire. The family is very involved in civic leadership. Raymond Burke Jr. had been one of the founding officers of the Cape May County Park Commission and was instrumental in the purchase of the land for the Cape May County Park Zoo.

Burke philanthropy and community involvement permeates every part of the business. David’s wife Francey, who runs special events and community relations for the dealership, estimates that the Burke Motor Group has raised nearly $1 million in various projects for the community over the last 20 years.

Projects range from purchasing a special medical van to shuttle area veterans back and forth to Wilmington, Del. for treatment to raising $30,000 to construct a popular playground that has been enjoyed by thousands of children over the years.

The annual Burke Motor Group Car, Truck & Cycle Show has been an enormous success since its inception. This signature event benefits Veterans, Active Military, and First Responders. Last year, the Show included a 9/11 tribute fire engine from New York City. This year’s event will take place September 3.

The Burke’s latest philanthropic initiative, The Burke Promise, “makes donations with every car sale, every day, all year.” Customers nominate four charitable organizations each year and everyone who buys a car gets to choose where they’d like the donation to go to.

This year, the beneficiaries are the Cape May County Animal Shelter, Cape May County Coast Guard Community Foundation, CASA for Children of Atlantic and Cape May Counties or Survivors of Cancer.

Burke Motor Group has received numerous awards over the years, including a Congressional Proclamation to honor and commend the Burke family business and recognizing the honor and pride the business has brought to the community.

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