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Horace Sutton
March 07, 1955
Daytona's history spans the lifetime of the U.S. automobile
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March 07, 1955

The Classic Sands

Daytona's history spans the lifetime of the U.S. automobile

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Shortly after the century turned, a band of social sportsmen went down to Florida to play in the sand. They brought along a new toy, the sports car, which they delighted in racing along the hard-packed, Atlantic-washed shore line of Ormond Beach. In 1902 W. Gould Brokaw showed up in a 60 hp Renault. Soon William K. Vanderbilt Jr. was on hand with a Mercedes, a horseless carriage that would pull like 90 horses. Spectators came to watch in tweeds and wing collars, parking their fringed surreys at the edge of the grassy dunes, crunching their bowlers over their ears and turning up the velvet collars of their Chesterfields against the chill wind that only lately had swept the coast of Portugal, 3,000 miles eastward across the sea.

There were some unsocial aficionados too. An inventor, Henry Ford, lived in a breeze-blown tent on the sand. But he couldn't scrape together enough money to have his cracked crankshaft repaired, and he was never in the running. Alexander Winton, in cap and goggles, leaned on the bare steering wheel of the Winton Bullet, a contraption that was little more than an engine and a chassis mounted on four wire wheels, and sent it zooming down the sands at 68.198 mph, a new record.

When Willy K. Vanderbilt cracked a new world's record in his Mercedes the next year, a whole stream of speed fanciers headed South. They bore names famous to racing, and some that would be emblazoned on hubcaps the world over and become household words in the decades that followed. They were Ransom E. Olds, who gave his name to the Oldsmobile and his initials to the Reo; Lancia of Italy and Chevrolet of France, and F. E. Stanley, who built the Steamer.

The raceway was incomparable. From Ormond, the beach stretched southward to Daytona, a flat, gleaming straightaway for 23 unbroken miles, water-cooled and resurfaced by the tide twice a day. Daytona became Speed City by-the-sea. Demogeot in an eight-cylinder Darracq covered an amazing two miles in less than a minute, and soon Major H.O.D. Segrave and Sir Malcolm Campbell were roaring up the sands at better than 200 mph. By 1935 Campbell and his Bluebird had done Daytona at 276.82.

The sand strip which the social sports car enthusiasts discovered in the first years of the century is now officially classified as a state highway. It is safe to say that it is the only state highway in the nation that is underwater half the time. During the times that it is high, flat and dry, it becomes a concourse for thousands of motorists either en route between Miami and the northlands or merely joy riding on what Daytona immodestly refers to as The World's Most Famous Beach.

Although the speed limit is 10 mph, a driver who would like to burst the bonds of propriety and the law may race over the sands once each year—during the Speed Week just ended. Those who tried paid $10 to join NASCAR and another $2 for hospitalization insurance against possible croppers (none cropped). Any driver able to get the family jalopy up to 100 mph over the two-way course qualified for membership in the Century Club (a few made it).

There are signs that the mechanized pilgrimage may move from the beach to the mainland side of Daytona, where plans are afoot to build the fastest 2�-mile speedway in existence. Instead of the standard oval shape, the Daytona Raceway will be a modified triangle with three straightaways. With stands for 30,000, it will cover a 600-acre site adjacent to the Daytona Airport. The nation's largest stock car races will be held in February and an Indianapolis-type event over a 300-mile course will be held in July. If the project is financed in time, it will be ready in 1956, the object being to perpetuate racing in Daytona, its natural birthplace, rather than Indianapolis, its adopted home, or the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, an upstart competitor.

A deserted sand bar in its early racing days, Daytona Beach now has 15 miles of motels, can house 35,000 visitors a night in all its installations. The dunes where Ford pitched his tent are now a beachfront occupied by Ellinor Village, the nation's largest family resort, with a capacity of 3,000. Last year Daytona's motels sent so many people to the Speed Week races that the promoters had to stop selling tickets.

When there are no races Daytona visitors can browse through the new Museum of Speed, which contains Sir Malcolm Campbell's Bluebird and other immortals of the sands. Or with Walter Mitty dreams, they can send their own Benevolent Buick along the World's Most Famous Beach, albeit at 10 mph, or rent a�-horsepower gas runabout that can't make more than 10 miles an hour, or ride a bicycle (15 mph), or even a live, saddled, longhorn steer (2 mph), rented for such purposes. Overhead, Daytona's sea gulls will wheel and wing and catch bread bits on the fly and clip crusts out of your hand. And far above, down from the Naval Air Station at Jacksonville, Banshees and Cutlasses (600 mph), the new speed merchants, chalk lazy vapor doodles on the blue, flying over the Daytona Speedway like homing pigeons out of a new era, drawn irresistibly to their right cote.