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Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Few remember greatest tragedy


DAYTONA BEACH — The grandstands on the frontstretch of Daytona International Speedway bear the names of men not everyone would recognize.

Oldfield. DePalma. Campbell. Keech. Segrave. Lockhart.

These men were the original speed demons, men who came to the beaches of Ormond and Daytona in the first part of the last century to set, break and reset the world land speed record. Men who, for the most part, are now lost in the sands of time.

However forgotten these men may be today, Lee Bible surpasses them all in obscurity, and sadly, in tragedy.

On March 13, 1929, Bible, a Daytonan, in his pursuit for the ultimate speed, paid the ultimate price on his home sands.

The story, which The News-Journal deemed the “greatest speed battle of all-time,” unfolded on March 11, 1929. On that day, Great Britain´s Henry Segrave set the land speed record of 231.44 mph in his Golden Arrow, besting the record of Ray Keech, who set the mark of 207.55 in 1928 in the monstrous Triplex.

Not to be outdone, J.M. White, the rich Philadelphian who owned the Triplex, was on hand with his powerful machine, intent on bringing the title back to America and to his car.

Finding someone to drive the Triplex, however, was an entirely different challenge.

According to The News-Journal story, when White asked Keech to come back and drive the Triplex, Keech said, “There is not enough money to get me back in that hot seat.”

To any sane person, this was understandable. No machine was as big and powerful as the Triplex. The Triplex weighed seven tons and was powered by three 12-cylinder Liberty Aircraft engines, capable of producing more than 1,200 horsepower. The “hot seat” of which Keech spoke was between the engines, one in the front of the car and two behind the driver´s pit, mounted side by side.

Needless to say, when White named local garage operator Lee Bible as the driver of the Triplex it caused quite a stir. Though Bible had worked as a mechanic on the Triplex in its record 1928 run, he was simply a short-track driver of little consequence. Many questioned his competence behind the wheel of such a colossal contraption.

Undaunted, Bible took a few practice runs for the race contest board, and he was declared eligible to make his run at the record, a chance he considered “the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Bible´s assault on the land speed mark began in the mid-afternoon on March 13, 1929. However, his attempt was as fleeting as his fame.

Bible made one run, and then attempted another. Just out of the time trap on the record mile, a stretch he made at 202 mph, something went wrong and the car swerved.

´In a split-second the mighty machine crashed into the dunes about 100 feet from the timing trap, showering the air with sand and smoke” reads The News-Journal account.

“The Triplex rolled, bounding over and over until it again came up against the dunes at least 200 feet farther north.”

Bible´s body had been thrown from the car and in the process the Triplex flew into cameraman Charles Traub, killing him instantly. All that remained of the once-stout Triplex was a heap of gnarled steel. It was the worst tragedy in Daytona´s beach racing history, stinging that much more as it took the life of one of the area´s own.

Special Report: 100 YEARS OF RACING
Traveling a long way from establishing land speed records, automobile racing has taken a different turn. Now, due west of the sands where racing began, sleek-bodied stock cars race on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway.