Beverly Rae Himes explored "The Dawn of Speed" in the November 1987 isue of American Heritage. Here is a repost of the article with an images from my collection.
From American Heritage
November 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 7
The Dawn Of Speed
By Beverly Kae Kimes
The Florida Speed Carnivals at Daytona lasted less than a decade, but they saw American motoring grow from rich man’s sport to national obsession
It has been said that motor sport was the first organized activity in America that drew all social classes together. Certainly William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., and Barney Oldfield would have been unlikely to have exchanged pleasantries otherwise. Vanderbilt, elegant, impeccably groomed, was scion to one of the world’s great fortunes, whose childhood attack of the measles made the society pages, whose wedding occupied eight full news columns in New York papers. Oldfield, stocky, sometimes disheveled, invariably with a stubby cigar clenched in his teeth, was a former bellhop and newsboy, profane and anti-establishment, whose name appeared only on sports pages and the occasional police blotter. The races on the long stretch of sand linking Ormond and Daytona brought them together, racing against each other and against the clock.
Beach racing made wonderful sense at the turn of the century. Unlike Europe, whose fine roadways went back to Napoleonic times and beyond, the United States was ill prepared for the burgeoning horseless age. Less than 7 percent of the nation’s roads were surfaced at all, which meant that except for horse tracks occasionally rented for the purpose, there were few places in America to exercise one’s automobile.
That the automobile was the rich man’s plaything and suffered a work-ofthe-devil reputation during this period is a commonplace—and only partly true. “The racing fever burns in the veins of every motor crank,” a New York World reporter wrote. “Every man with thirty cents in his bank account talks about buying a motor car.” The rich’s ability to buy, and to spend, was the reason the beach races were aimed at the Vanderbilt set more than the Oldfield crowd. Occupancy in the area’s elegant and expensive hotels quadrupled during the weeks of motor sport, but the egalitarian aspect assumed by the beach races added color to the scene, as did the increasingly fierce rivalry between Ormond and Daytona.
To Daytona goes credit for the beachracing idea, which was first suggested by James Foster Hathaway, who had made his fortune in Massachusetts and who migrated to Daytona’s Clarendon Hotel each winter. To Ormond goes credit for first turning the sands into a speedway. America’s two most successful gasoline-automobile manufacturers were guests at the Ormond Hotel when the proprietors, John Anderson and Joseph D. Price, approached them with Hathaway’s idea. “They got myself and Winton to fit out racing cars and put on those races in the middle of April,” Ransom Eli Olds remembered years later.
It was 1902. There were few more than five thousand native-built cars in the United States, mostly in urban areas, most of them steam and electric carriages produced in the East. But, in Michigan, Olds was about to outproduce either type with his curved-dash runabout (which was to be immortalized in song as “My Merry Oldsmobile”). As for Alexander Winton of Cleveland, he had been the first man in the nation to produce one hundred gasoline cars, and he had done so before the turn of the century, selling number twelve to one James Ward Packard, whose complaints regarding his purchase so enraged its creator that on a last, memorable visit to the factory, Packard was summarily told that the “Winton waggon as it stood was the ripened and perfected product of many years of lofty thought” (actually, three) and that “if Mr. Packard wanted any of his own cats and dogs worked into a waggon, he had better build it himself.” Of course, Mr. Packard did. The intransigence the episode suggests is one reason we are not driving Wintons today.
Nonetheless, in 1902 Winton was in accord with Olds that publicity helped sales. Winton already had a car in which to compete. Indeed, he was one of the top race drivers in the country, his Bullet thus far beaten only occasionally by the machines of an automobile mechanic he had deemed too unpromising for employment in his factory: Henry Ford. But Ransom Olds had to build a race car for that first foray on the beach—a skeletal contrivance with a single-cylinder engine, rocketlike gas tanks, sulky-type seat complete with stirrups, all and sundry resting on four spidery cycle wheels. He called it the Pirate. Winton’s Bullet was more substantial, with a four-cylinder engine, sturdy wooden wheels, a stout seat, and even a radiator mounted up front, although this last looked rather like a bale of hay.
About fifty spectators were rounded up. The race was on. “Winton cut ,notches in his tires, feeling [they] were slipping on the beach,” Olds recalled, “but it did not seem to help out the speed of the car.” Both Olds and Winton were clocked at exactly 57 miles per hour. This seems unlikely, but it allowed each to advertise the salutary result and was probably the idea of the Ormond Hotel proprietors, who wanted both drivers back the following year.
And so they were. Spectators numbered three thousand in 1903; competitors numbered three. James Hathaway was timed in his Stanley Steamer at a little under a minute and a half. The stars of the show remained the Bullet and the Pirate, both revamped, Olds sending a factory test driver along to pilot his car, Winton remaining behind the wheel of the Bullet. The Pirate did a mile in a little over a minute; the Bullet a little under.
The real winner was the beach, smooth as a billiards table and the “finest natural racecourse in the world,” as Winton exclaimed. Wealthy local residents had been persuaded to bring their cars out for runs on the sand, and a reporter wrote: “Bluff and beach were thronged with the summer-garbed crowds of fashionable men and women, who make up most of the winter population. There was a sprinkling of open-eyed and openmouthed ‘crackers,’ and ‘pickaninnies’ tumbled and played about the beach in swarms. The tout ensemble was interesting and unique.…”
Afterward the participants gathered to form the Florida East Coast Automobile Association and make the races an annual event. Both Daytona and Ormond people were present at the creation, and relations seem to have been friendly. The prospect of a healthy influx of visitors to the area each year was enticing, and one outsider in the group painted a particularly rosy picture. He was William J. Morgan of New Jersey, whom everyone knew as “the Senator.” A former racing cyclist, Morgan was now among the powers at The Automobile , one of the best motoring magazines of the day. A natural promoter, he was perfect for the Ormond-Daytona cause, and the free advertising and national publicity his magazine could provide helped ensure his selection as the association’s business manager.
Because Ransom Olds and Alexander Winton could be counted upon to spread the beach-racing word in the Midwest, Morgan spent the next nine months drumming up enthusiasm on the East Coast from the New York City editorial offices of The Automobile. It wasn’t difficult. He simply said that Ormond-Daytona would be America’s Nice. Since before the turn of the century, Europe’s motoring aristocracy had journeyed to that fashionable Riviera city for a week of racing each year, a fact well known among America’s wealthy automobile enthusiasts. Some of them had participated, and all of them were aware of the 1901 meet, when the Daimler automobile dealer Emil Jellinek stunned the Continent by sweeping Nice’s speed week in a Daimler he had ordered especially and named for his daughter Mercedes. By now the Daimler company had decided that calling all its cars Mercedes was a good idea.
There would be lots of them at Ormond-Daytona. Society’s ladies might motor sedately in their low-powered American electrics; society’s gentlemen preferred dashing about in high-powered gasoline cars purchased from Europe. Not a single American sportsman competed on the beach in 1904 with an American car. A Renault was the choice of W. Gould Brokaw, whose town house was on Madison Avenue and whose Long Island estate was called “Nirvana.” And there was a smattering of other French machines. But the overwhelming choice this year was the German Mercedes.
Morgan had scheduled the Florida Speed Carnival to begin in late January, immediately following the New York Automobile Show at the Grand Central Palace, the premier automotive social event up north. Scarcely had its doors closed than show visitors headed south, some of them in their own private railway cars.
Arrival in Florida brought some bickering about the expense involved in transporting the automobiles down, but that was forgotten soon after the unloading of the cars and the onset of festivities. All the hotels in the area were filled to capacity; the Ormond Hotel was the designated headquarters. The talk there the night before the races began was largely about one man. On January 12, 1904, Henry Ford had driven his latest racing car over the ice of Lake St. Clair in Michigan at 91.37 mph, the fastest automobile speed thus far recorded in the Americas. Whether a frozen-water run qualified as a land speed record was hotly debated by the American Automobile Association (AAA), but the mark had been allowed on January 20. Across the Atlantic, European motor-sport officialdom just snickered and would not even consider it. Sand would certainly qualify as land anywhere, however, and one of the competitors staying at the Ormond Hotel was sure he could better Ford’s speed. Two years earlier, while jousting near Albi, France, with his friend the Baron Henri de Rothschild, William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., had driven his French-made 60-hp Mors 76.08 mph. Now his mount was a custom-built 90hp Mercedes.
Only one machine at Ormond-Daytona was as powerful: Winton’s new Bullet, which the Cleveland manufacturer, taking a cue from Ransom Olds, entrusted to a professional driver. In later years Barney Oldfield, born poor in Ohio and unschooled past the age of twelve, liked to say that his first driving assignment was an elevator in the Monticello Hotel in Toledo. A bicycle was next, and his odd jobs ended; Oldfield was a fearless racing cyclist. The talent scouts who discovered him for automobile competition were Henry Ford and Tom Cooper, who put him behind the wheel of Ford’s 999, a car so scary that its builders were not initially eager to race it themselves. Oldfield won his first event, a match against Winton and two others, and thereafter campaigned 999 and its companion Ford Arrow at fairgrounds throughout the East and Midwest. When Winton came up with a more powerful car and offered Oldfield a job, Oldfield promptly took it. His only allegiance was to speed.
Vanderbilt set a mile record of 39 seconds. “Really, I did surprise myself,” he said.
But Barney was fond of late-night carousing, too, and Vanderbilt was first on the beach with his car. By 6:00 A.M. he was practicing, and soon after he asked to go for the record. Situating eight timers with split-second watches took a while, but once in his car, Willie K., as he was known, required only 39 seconds for the flying mile—92.3 mph, the first world land speed record made on American soil. Although again European officialdom would choose not to recognize the mark, protesting that the AAA had not yet been officially recognized as a sanctioning body, Vanderbilt could not have known that as he stepped triumphantly from his car. “Really, I did surprise myself,” he said modestly.
Watching quietly from the sidelines with his wife, Clara, was Henry Ford. He hurried back to the hotel to wire the factory to ship his Lake St. Clair car down, but the 999 did not arrive in Florida until the races were over.
Among the first to reach Vanderbilt on the sand with a congratulatory handshake was Oldfield, who said he would try for 38 seconds. “I hope you do,” the new world speed champion replied, “and I will try to make it 37.”
Actually, 39 seconds would not be bettered all week. Speed runs were always made in favoring winds, and the only time the winds were again so favorable, the tide was in. But there was plenty of spirited racing left: match races, invitationals for “gentlemen operators,” handicaps, free-for-alls, AAA championships for distances of one, ten, and fifty miles. Except for those races socially restricted, the events one competed in depended largely upon the competition one wished to go up against. F. A. La Roche, the New York importer of the French Darracq, entered every race he could in his Darracq; some “gentlemen operators” preferred to compete only against fellow sportsmen. Some traveled to Florida simply to watch, like the architect Stanford White, who accompanied his friend James L. Breese, winner of the first heat of the five-mile invitational in his Mercedes, and the actress Irene Bentley, invited by her friend Viola Clemmons, who had retired from the stage upon becoming Mrs. Howard Gould.
But the superstar of the 1904 Speed Carnival was Willie K. Vanderbilt Jr. He won every race except the final of the one-mile AAA championship just before the tide came in on Thursday afternoon. That was his first competition against Oldfield, and they were radiator to radiator until Willie K.’s miscalculation with a shift allowed Barney to surge ahead. Vanderbilt looked glum afterward but declared it a fair out-and-out beat. A rematch proved impossible, unfortunately, because Oldfield’s crankshaft broke early Friday morning, distressing both drivers, not to mention all the spectators who had bet on the rematch outcome.
Without Oldfield to challenge, Vanderbilt swept every event he entered in the two remaining days of the Speed Carnival —for a grand total of seven straightaway records and six race victories. The press attention his exploits brought made him uncomfortable, but he obliged with interviews affably and with photographs reluctantly. Oldfield smiled for the camera on every available opportunity. He had his public to think about, and he was as great a showman as he was a race driver. Still, Vanderbilt was a popular winner, “a bully good democratic fellow,” as one reporter said with a suggestion of surprise, “not to blame for being a society swell and millionaire.”
His car laden with trophies, Vanderbilt departed for Palm Beach after informing the race committee he would donate a prize for a hundred-mile race the following year. Nor was that all. Word of the success of the Florida Speed Carnival spread, and soon, from Britain, came the announcement of Sir Thomas Dewar that he wished to donate a trophy, too, for an international mile record run.
But already there was trouble. Under pressure from the AAA, Charles G. Burgoyne, as the president of the Florida East Coast Automobile Association, declared the 1905 meet would be an open event, not by invitation only, as in 1904. Clearly this was a ploy to remove W. J. Morgan from management. The Senator, who was in New England on business when the decision was announced, was aghast. The invitational status had to be preserved, he exhorted, “so that the entries can be controlled and undesirable drivers and freak machines shut out.” Burgoyne was from Daytona. Morgan was Ormond’s man. Stormy meetings followed, and both sides gave a little. Morgan remained in charge, agreeing to the meet’s being an open one, but with the right to reject any entry. Ormond built a garage to accommodate a hundred cars and “furnish lodging and eating accommodations for the mechanics and chauffeurs who have them in charge.” But Daytona had built a clubhouse for participants, and the races would start from Daytona’s end of the beach.
The week of January 24 was chosen for the 1905 Speed Carnival. Everyone expected another agreeable, accidentfree week. One of the appeals of beach competition was its presumed safety. But death arrived in 1905 before the Speed Carnival began.
Frank Croker, a son of the former Tammany Hall boss who was now enjoying life as a country gentleman in England, had traveled to Florida early to practice. His car was a racing version of the S&M Simplex, a high-priced and high-powered automobile recently put on the market and produced in Manhattan. Also arriving early to practice was Newton Stanley, a nephew of the steamer-producing Stanleys and an avid motorcyclist. Both were driving on the beach late on Saturday afternoon, January 21. Apparently not hearing the Simplex approaching from behind, Stanley swerved his motorcycle to avoid a wet spot. The two collided. Stanley was hurled into the sea, and the car careened toward the ocean and overturned. Croker’s mechanic, Alexander Raoul, was killed instantly. Stanley suffered a broken leg. Croker died the next day.
The tragedy doubtless would have cast a pall had it occurred during the Speed Carnival. But happening when it did lessened the impact. A collection was taken up for the widow Raoul and her four children, and on Tuesday, when the racing began, a festive air prevailed. Mrs. Howard Gould made an entrance on the beach as dramatic as she ever had onstage, in a crimsonstriped dress and a cake-shaped hat punctuated by a large pink rose in front that, appropriately, resembled an automobile headlamp, with white streamers trailing to the ground from the sides.
Henry Ford had no luck that year—his crankshafts kept breaking—and neither did Willie K. Florida’s new celebrities were H. L. Bowden of Boston, who spent nearly a hundred thousand dollars to have his car built, and Louis S. Ross, who worked days in his family’s contracting business in Newtonville, Massachusetts, and built his car evenings in the basement of his home. Both machines were extraordinary. Bowden’s was created by joining two 4-cylinder 60-hp Mercedes engines together in a Mercedes chassis lengthened twenty inches to accommodate them. Ross’s creation used two 10-hp Stanley steam engines in a chassis completely shrouded by a teardrop-shaped body that seemed a precursor of the yet unborn science of automobile aerodynamics.
Bowden’s was by far the more powerful car; indeed, so fierce was the vibration of its 120 hp in full cry that all nuts and bolts on the chassis had to be checked and retightened after each run on the beach. In one of them Bowden sped the mile in 34.2 seconds, a new fastest speed ever.
Ross covered himself in glory, too, winning six of the week’s races, more than any other competitor. In one of his victories he won Sir Thomas Dewar’s trophy, which wags on the beach liked to call the “Scotch Highball Cup.” With so many events on the schedule, there were prizes for almost everybody.
Prize giving was somewhat equivocal. Bowden’s record run, for example, went unrewarded because by AAA regulations his car was four hundred pounds overweight: the victory went to the British Arthur MacDonald in his Napier, which had been a split second slower. Loud boos on the beach following the announcement clearly demonstrated the spectators’ displeasure at Bowden’s disqualification, but the man himself was not upset. Demonstrating the feasibility of eight cylinders in an automobile was his intent, he said, and the thrill of the 105-mph ride was worth the money. Unofficially, too, Bowden won sartorial honors of the meet, press consensus being that his driver’s suit—undressed brown deerskin, cap to match, tightfitting knickerbockers, leather leggings, tan shoes—was “the simplest and most effective costume in evidence and…the envy of the men who know.” A tinge of envy was apparent in Louis Ross’s postrace announcement that he had “won glory enough” and would not defend his Dewar Cup the year following. “Some of the other competitors have nothing else to do but buy cars and try them out,” he said plaintively. “They have all the time they need and no business cares to worry them.” Ross sold his car to a New York bookmaker on the beach and went home to work.
The Automobile regarded the next year’s beach racing as a splendid success. To The Motor World it was dismal and disappointing, or as the headline pointedly put it, RECORD BREAKING ALONE SAVES THE FLORIDA CARNIVAL FROM ABJECT FAILURE . Especially distressing to that magazine’s editors was the diminished number of society people attending. Undeniably the Speed Carnival of 1906 was more businesslike than its predecessors. Most of the drivers were professionals; most of the cars were factory-entered. Ransom Olds, who by now had left the Olds Motor Works following a dispute with his board over the discontinuation of the curved-dash Oldsmobile, had a new company using his initials as its name and a Reo race car on the beach. Henry Ford was back with the racing Model K, bringing a party of associates, including Horace Dodge, one of his component suppliers. From Italy, F.I.A.T. (as it was written then, translating to Fabbrica Italiana Automobili, Torino) sent a car over with the factory racing ace Vincenzo Lancia. A Napier returned from England. From France came the driver Victor Hémery, four Darracqs—and trouble.
Hémery was a hothead. At the weighing in, when the lightest Darracq was declared forty-four pounds too heavy for the class in which he wanted to enter it, his outburst was recognized as profanity even by those with no knowledge of French. During early qualifying runs, seeing Fred Marriott’s Stanley Steamer as his most formidable opposition, Hémery pulled alongside the car and revved his engine furiously, in hopes that flames from the Darracq’s exhaust might set the Stanley’s canvas-and-wood body afire. Transatlantic cables flew between Florida and the Darracq factory in France about the problem. Ultimately the AAA disqualified Hémery and shrewdly resolved the ticklish diplomatic situation by turning over some of his scheduled runs to Louis Chevrolet, an up-and-coming race driver from Brooklyn who had emigrated to America from France (and who, a halfdozen years later, had his name on a production car). The Stanley survived Hémery’s arson attempt to win a total of six races and make a sensational straightaway run that exceeded two miles a minute for the first time in history.
Both Ransom Olds and Henry Ford were disappointed with their cars’ performances on the beach, and each returned to Michigan to focus attention on manufacturing. Ford was soon to begin development of a new production model designated T; Olds was about to add a truck to his Reo line.
Society was even less in attendance at the beach the next year. Partly this was the result of the commercialization of the 1906 Speed Carnival, which was seen as déclassé. The Florida Times-Union ’s contest to find the “prettiest girl in the state” to crown the speed king of the week, the opening of the Ormond Hotel to “programme peddlers in evening dress,” and the presence of a trick cyclist who was allowed to pass his cap in the lobby had persuaded one wealthy guest to remark about “dropping a sausage on a page of poems.”
Europeans stayed away in 1907 largely because the impending inaugural of the new highly banked Brooklands track in England held promise for speeds as fast as Ormond-Daytona. American gasolinecar manufacturers stayed away because they did not believe they could equal the Stanley’s speed of 1906, and the Stanley factory had announced for 1907 a new steam racer that was to be even faster.
How fast the new Stanley was would never be known. Beach conditions were abysmal much of the week. F. E. Stanley timed Marriott at just under thirty seconds during a bumpy trial mile, after which the race driver said that at full bore in the official run he would “skim right over” the “two little ripples” he had felt during practice. Instead, tbe ripples caused a terrible crash. Marriott miraculously survived, but the accident so shook the Stanleys they announced their immediate retirement from racing.
The week’s most spectacular performance was Glenn Curtiss’s straightaway speed record on a V-8-engined motorcycle. Amid the press attention to the Marriott accident, Curtiss was largely ignored in Florida, but not elsewhere. Alexander Graham Bell invited the motorcyclist to join his Aerial Experiment Association, and in 1908, in an airplane using the same V-8 engine, Curtiss made the first official public flights in the Western Hemisphere.
On the east coast of Florida, meanwhile, Ormond-Daytona officials met to discuss what had gone wrong with their races. They came to three conclusions: “Speed freaks” were not crowd pleasers; the dominance of a steam-powered machine had irked gasoline-auto manufacturers, who by now were in the vast majority in the industry; and the weather on the beach in January could be mercurial. The problems were easily solved. Stanley had already assisted by withdrawing from competition, the 1908 carnival was moved to March, and only entries of automobiles “along accepted and legitimate lines” were allowed.
So the 1908 Florida Speed Carnival was better. A particular crowd pleaser that year was David Bruce-Brown, whose family was in New York’s Social Register and who had run away from school to attend the races. Following their conclusion, the seventeen-year-old, who had served as an unpaid grease monkey for the F.I.A.T. Cyclone that had taken most of the speed records, begged the car’s owner, the auto importer E. Rand Hollander, to allow him the wheel for an attempt on the Vanderbilt 39-second amateur record for the mile still on the books from 1904. The publicity accruing should the boy break Willie K.’s mark persuaded Hollander to agree, and with timers and wire traps set Bruce-Brown drove the Cyclone a mile in 35.6 seconds.
Young Bruce-Brown was the star the next year, too, lowering the amateur mile to 33 seconds flat in a 120-hp Benz and winning the coveted Dewar Cup. His mother threatened to disinherit him if he continued racing. (Unfortunately Bruce-Brown won her over and kept at it; he was killed in 1912 while practicing for the Grand Prize road race in Milwaukee.)
Despite Bruce-Brown’s showing, the 1909 beach races lost money, and Daytona lost enthusiasm. Falling revenues had prompted Ormond to decline participation that year, and now its rival also withdrew. This was perhaps the first time the two towns had agreed on anything since soon after the tournaments began.
Beach racing might have died with the whimper of 1909 except for Barney Old-field. He was the most famous race driver in America. Now he planned to take on the world. The Stanley Steamer’s 127 mph in 1906 remained the fastest any automobile had thus far traveled; Old-field had just bought a 200-hp Benz that the tempestuous Victor Hémery had pushed to 125.9 mph, at Brooklands, England, as much as that 2.75-mile banked circuit would allow. The tide-washed 20-plus miles of sand in Florida beckoned.
Scarcely had W. J. Morgan announced there would be no beach racing in 1910 than his statement was retracted. Under the auspices of the Florida East Coast Automobile Association and the sanction of the AAA, the Speed Carnival was reinstated in March “chiefly to give Barney Oldfield an opportunity to attack world’s straightaway records.”
Oldfield’s name was sufficient to ensure the success of the carnival, but to spice the proceedings, competing cars were encouraged to enter. Accepting the challenge were David Bruce-Brown with the 120-hp Benz, who wanted only to lower his personal record, and the Brooklyn inventor J. Walter Christie, who had seldom missed the annual Florida events and in whom hope sprang eternal. For years Christie had been promoting the concept of front-wheel drive with missionary zeal and, except for the sale of a couple of his competition cars to W. Gould Brokaw, without success. “It’s no shame to be poor,” Christie once said, “but it’s damn inconvenient.” But the 100 hp of Christie’s V-4 engine was no match for the Benz.
Oldfield put on a spectacular show. “Me and the Benz here, we’re gonna warm up the sand a little,” he shouted as he put cotton plugs in his ears and a cigar in his mouth before the mile run. The sand was warmed to 131.724 mph. “As near to the absolute limit of speed as humanity will ever travel,” said Barney loftily. The Florida Times-Union declared that only a bullet had traveled faster, making a superb advertising line for the Benz importer in New York. Kaiser Wilhelm II cabled congratulations from Germany.
Thereafter Oldfield barnstormed the nation with the Benz, until that fall, when he engineered a match race against the heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson—a fine gimmick but illegal because Johnson was not an accredited race driver. Suspended by the AAA for a year, Oldfield raced in Mexico for a while, then sold the Benz to his manager, Ernie Moross, announced his retirement, and opened a saloon in Los Angeles.
To Oldfield’s considerable chagrin, Moross returned the Benz to the beach at Daytona in April 1911. His driver was Bob Burman, as shy as Oldfield was gregarious, but easily as fearless. There were no challengers to the car this time, but still, a large crowd gathered along the measured mile to watch Burman try for a new record.
“‘Here he comes—there he goes!’ summed up the story of the ride in a nutshell,” reported The Horseless Age after the run. Burman’s speed was 141.732 mph—a full ten miles an hour faster than Oldfield’s. This is not to suggest that Burman was the better driver; Barney had typically held back during his Benz run so he could promote another “go-for-the-record” exhibition. Needless to say, Oldfield was furious and came out of retirement to seek vengeance. But the “fastest speed at which man has ever traveled over the earth’s surface” belonged to Burman for eight years. So phenomenal was 141-plus mph that automobile makers throughout the world were loath to consider building a car to attempt to top it.
Resumption of the Florida Speed Carnivals would have been anticlimactic after Burman’s run, so it served as the fitting finale. In 1902, when Olds and Winton were clocked at 57 mph on the beach outside the Ormond Hotel, there had been little motor sport elsewhere in America. Now there was lots—road races in Savannah, Georgia; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Santa Monica, California; Elgin, Illinois; and Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. The first of the board tracks had opened at Playa del Rey in California. And on a new brick speedway in Indianapolis, on Memorial Day weekend in 1911, promoters held a five-hundred-mile race that they promised would be an annual affair.
But it was not simply the plethora of other places to race that ended the Florida Speed Carnivals. The character of racing itself had changed. The spirited mix of amateur and pro that was a hallmark of the beach events became passé as motor sport became more of a business. Moreover, once automobiles had ceased being a novelty, most wealthy sportsmen lost interest in racing them. The Florida beach would again be used for land speed-record attempts—from 1919, when Ralph De Palma broke the Burman mark in an aero-engined Packard into the mid-thirties, when 300 mph proved too much for the beach and record breaking transferred to the greater expanse of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Subsequently beach racing was given a raucous reprise in Daytona until the late fifties, when Bill France, Sr., founder of the National Association of Sports Car Racing (NASCAR), moved stock-car events from the sand to a permanent inland racecourse.
Today Ormond Beach proudly calls itself the “Birthplace of Speed.” And Daytona Beach takes voluble pride in its Daytona International Speedway. Old rivalries die hard.
The zenith of Vanderbilt’s racing career was the Ormond-Daytona Beach Automobile Tournament in January 1904. For the event, he purchased a giant 90-hp Mercedes, among the most powerful cars in the world. On January 27th, he set the one-mile land speed record on the beach going 92.3 mph, surpassing the record established earlier in the month by Henry Ford.
Spectators on the beach.
Two of Willie K's racers; the Mercedes and the 60-HP Mors
Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. used the Mors to get a better view of the races.
Willie K. awaiting the start of the 5o-mile race.
Willie K. preparing to break the world's one-mile land speed record.
Willie K. and one of his mechanicians.
Breaking the land speed record.
The trophy given to William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. for breaking the one-mile record.
Barney Oldfield challenged Willie K.
Newspapers and automobile trade journals hailed Vanderbilt as the #1 automobilist in the world.