Wednesday, February 12, 2003
Beach races wane, then DePalma turns tide
By JENNY ZIMMERMAN
DAYTONA BEACH — The first seven years of racing on the beaches of Ormond and Daytona introduced the motorsports world to the first men after whom Daytona International Speedway would name its grandstands, Ralph DePalma and Barney Oldfield.
William J. Morgan hyped the first meet of the new decade, in 1910, as the one that would cement his career as the greatest race organizer of all time.
Famed race car enthusiast and developer J. Walter Christie brought his pioneering front-wheel-drive racers to the forefront, complete with complications and gremlins that would eventually work themselves out despite the snickering and head-shaking of spectators and competitors alike.
The dueling horsepower of Oldfield in his “Lightning Benz,” George Robertson in Christie´s front-wheel-drive racer and DePalma in a Fiat would highlight the event in a three-man pre-meet race.
Oldfield had spent years barnstorming the country and had gained a good bit of wealth in his exhibitions. He was extremely popular and well-known in the early years, with a cigar hanging from his mouth for nearly every photograph taken of him while he raced. His Benz carried a four-cylinder engine with about 200 horsepower.
According to Dick Punnett´s “Racing on the Rim,” a historical account of beach racing from 1903-1910, DePalma broke a piston during practice. The pre-meet exhibition for “speed king of the world” had to be canceled, and Morgan´s aspiration of making this the pinnacle of the events he organized was dashed.
Oldfield set the land speed record on the beach that year with a run of 131.72 mph. DePalma and others would best Oldfield´s speed in coming years, though the newer speeds were “unofficial.” Oldfield´s record remained until 1927 -- the same year that the Federation Internationale de L´Automobile, based in Paris, standardized regulations along with the American Automobile Association.
After Morgan´s ill-fated exhibition in 1910, the annual winter racing meets disappeared into history, as spectators and promoters lost interest and moved on.
The Florida East Coast Automobile Association slowly backed out of supporting Morgan´s efforts for more annual meets. Promoters in Jacksonville grabbed the opportunity and shifted the dates ordinarily reserved for the beach meets to their city.
The face of racing in the area changed quickly.
In 1911, Daytona organized an aviation show, a feat considering that Morgan had previously failed to gather enough airplanes to enthuse the crowds.
With aviation being a new concept in Florida at the time, fans were thrilled at the thought of planes racing just above the sands of Daytona´s measured mile on the beach.
Drivers, however, remained determined to best one another and break world records on the beach.
Oldfield returned to defend his land speed record in 1911, but Buick brought along a three-man team that included Bob Burman, Louis Chevrolet and Lewis Strang. Burman so impressed Ernest Moross, the Benz´s owner, that Moross dumped Oldfield as his driver in favor of the younger Burman.
Oldfield did set a new record for the mile from a standing start, at 88.84 mph. But Burman bested Oldfield´s land speed record by a full 10 mph, taking the course at 141.73 mph.
As most racers believed Burman´s speed to be beyond what was reasonable, interest in breaking the record waned during the next eight years.
With an Indianapolis 500 win and the national driving championship secured, DePalma came back to Daytona in 1919 and revived beach racing.
On Feb. 12, DePalma raced a Packard on the measured mile, setting a new record of 149.875 mph -- and he wanted more. DePalma was determined to set every beach record in existence.
Among those records was Oldfield´s 8-year-old mark for a standing-start mile, which DePalma topped by nearly 4 mph at 92.713 mph. One by one, DePalma claimed all the records, in the process almost single-handedly bringing crowds back to the beach.
And so the second decade of racing on the sands at Daytona Beach came to a close that year after what many now refer to as the “One-Man Speed Week.”