Wednesday, February 12, 2003
The beaches give birth to speed
By JENNY ZIMMERMAN
DAYTONA BEACH — The granddaddy of them all, they say, is the Indianapolis 500. Well, hold on one minute. We all get our start somewhere, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway had a granddaddy of its own -- right here in Ormond Beach.
When auto racing came to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, racers by the hundreds came from far-away places for the first annual winter racing meet in 1903, bringing with them the frantic pace of worldwide travel and the opportunity of growth to what would later become the “World Center of Racing.”
Long before it was known as “Bill France weather,” the crisp yet mild winter temperatures convinced racers and fans alike that the Daytona Beach area was the perfect setting for setting world records. They drove more than a thousand miles, many from the northeastern U.S., on roads that had barely taken shape since the advent of the automobile in the late 1800s.
The first racing meet held in Ormond Beach introduced Florida to the world of land-speed records -- and all the men hell-bent on making them.
William J. Morgan, the relentless organizer of the first years of race meets, drummed up interest in the first meet in 1903 on the beaches of Ormond and Daytona. Together with retired businessman J.F. Hathaway, Morgan enticed America to travel to the unpaved roads of Florida and make their way to the beach for auto racing.
According to local historian Dick Punnett´s “Racing on the Rim,” Hathaway wrote an article in 1903 that appeared in “Motor Age” magazine that referred to Ormond´s and Daytona´s beaches as “the finest in the world.” Hathaway assured racers all over the world that “it is an ideal race course and a place where world records will be made in the future.”
Hathaway marked a clear, one-mile stretch of beach, beginning at and extending south of the ramp on Granada Avenue, just minutes east of the Ormond Hotel, where fans and racers mingled at what would become the Mecca of beach racing.
Though records previously had been set on the beach, the first race meet was momentous. On March 26, 1903, Horace T. Thomas drove the Pirate, a car owned by Ransom E. Olds, to an American record for cars under 1,000 pounds.
Olds already was the brains behind what would be Oldsmobile, originally known as Olds Motor Works. He is widely considered the founder of the automobile industry, having begun manufacturing horseless carriages in 1890.
In Thomas´ first attempt, he set the American record at 54.38 mph, beating the former record set for the mile by L.O. Thompson by more than 29 seconds.
Alexander Winton set the land-speed record of 68 mph in his heavier car, Bullet No. 2.
During that first historic meet, Hathaway drove his Stanley Steamer to a fast lap of 1 minute, 28.4 seconds to best his time trial on the beach from one year earlier.
The event attracted fans from several states, even for this small, unadvertised first meeting.
Interest in beach racing was so overwhelming throughout the days and months afterward, organizers formed the Florida East Coast Automobile Association, appointing Morgan as the official organizer of the 1904 meet. He would organize the annual meets until 1910. For years Olds remained a major benefactor and placed dozens of cars in the annual event on Daytona´s beaches.
For the 1904 meet, Morgan arranged for the Packard Motor Car Company to bring its lightning-quick Gray Wolf -- of the medium-weight category -- to the beach, and was soon bombarded by requests from other car companies seeking to join the world-record attempts on the beach. The Stevens-Duryea Company brought its Spider to compete in the lightweight category.
Both cars set records in their respective categories. Charles Schmidt drove the Gray Wolf, at 1,430 pounds, to a new five-mile record on Jan. 2, 1904, in 4:21.6. A day earlier, Otto Nestman set the five-mile record for his class, driving the Spider in a fast lap of 4:47.8.
With the increasing interest in racing on the firm sands of the beach came the birth of the original Gasoline Alley.
Recognizing the need for racing “accommodations,” famed railroad man Henry Flagler built the Ormond Garage in 1904, a place for racers to house their speedsters during racing events that lasted days, sometimes weeks.
The garage, at 79 E. Granada Ave., became the hub of racing weekend activity, as hundreds of racers, mechanics and crews gathered there daily to fine-tune their machines. Flagler eventually added separate sleeping quarters for crew members at the garage, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1905, organized racing here was delivered its first jolt of the all-too-familiar perils of record-setting speed. Frank Croker, 27, and his mechanic, Alexander Raoul, were killed when their S&M Simplex flipped into the waves. Raoul died instantly. Croker died the next day.
Despite the deaths, racing went on. By 1905, William K. Vanderbilt Jr. had become the Bill Elliott of that era in Ormond and Daytona beach racing. Wildly popular with the fans, he was often surrounded at the Ormond Hotel by autograph-seekers and people who wanted a brush with fame.
Racers scrambled for the fans´ attention, entering steam-, electric- and gas-powered contraptions to find out which the spectators preferred. Meanwhile, records fell and horsepower grew. Racing´s popularity and the lure of the area were at a fever pitch and would remain so for decades.
Would-be manufacturers flocked to the beach, including Vincenzo Lancia, soon-to-be creator of the Lancia Automobile Company in Turin, Italy. Lancia brought his racers to Daytona Beach in 1906 to win four races against the likes of J. Walter Christie, Guy Vaughan and Louis Chevrolet, all of whom would become manufacturers themselves.
At the end of the first seven years of racing on the beaches of Ormond and Daytona, ingenuity flourished and the bizarre wasn´t so bizarre as racers and millionaires worldwide arrived annually, determined to best one another and take home the world record for their category.