A Brief History: Racing on The Beaches

Every Tuesday, Kate will bring you a brief auto racing history lesson, starting with the racing on the Ormond-Daytona Beaches.

For as long as people have had access to cars, people have raced them. 

And for as long as people have raced cars, they have raced them in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Long before the storied Daytona International Speedway beckoned to race car drivers, drivers flocked to the beach. 

Daytona Beach was perfect for the thrill of setting land records — as was a common practice in early automobile history. 

The beach — over twenty miles long, the flat surface was almost like concrete when the conditions were right — called to people who craved speed. 

It wasn’t Daytona Beach that was truly the starting point of this story however, that distinction belongs to Daytona Beach’s neighbor to the immediate north – Ormond. 

Ormond was home to the Hotel Ormond, owned by the man responsible for developing most of Florida’s Eastern Coat – entrepreneur Henry Flagler. It was a destination for wealthy families to escape the harsh winters and guests with last names such as Vanderbilt, Astor, and Rockefeller. 

Bicycle tracks in the sand — or more aptly, the lack of them, caught the attention of a businessman named J.F. Hathaway in 1902. It was his eye and his knowledge that Ormond Beach would make an excellent place to race automobiles and change the course of history for the area forever. 

Hathaway sent photographs of Ormond Beach to automotive journals and newspapers, touting the beach as the ideal race track. Those photographs caught the attention of a correspondent for the Automobile Magazine by the name of William J Morgan who headed to Ormond in February 1903 to see the beach for himself.

After seeing the beach and agreeing with Hathaway’s assessment, Morgan, along with the Hotel Ormond managers, decided that a winter automobile racing event would be a good promotional event for the hotel. A hastily formed Daytona and Seabreeze Automobile Association was brought on board to help. 

In a month’s time, the first racing event was held on March 26, 1903. The short lead time meant there were only two entrants in the first speed trials – Alexander Winton and H.T. Thomas, each in their own class. But the two men went head to head a few days later, Winton emerging victorious by one-fifth of a second, and everyone in attendance agreed that the Ormond and Daytona Beaches were perfect for racing. 

Racing in Ormond continued to grow with the construction of the Ormond Garage, which was also known as “Gasoline Alley”, meant to house racers and their mechanics who ventured down to the beaches to race.

The same year that Gasoline Alley was built, William K Vanderbilt broke the flying mile record with a speed of 92.30 mph in his Mercedes 90, garnering the beach much more attention, making the Ormond-Daytona Beaches the destination for land records, in the never-ending pursuit to go faster and break the records that had already been set. In 1906, Fred Marriott broke Vanderbilt’s record, going 127.66 mph thus being the first to break through the two miles a minute threshold. The beach beckoned to drivers like Barney Oldfield and Bob Burnam — each breaking an existing land record. 

Post World War I the pursuit of land speed records become a specialized deal with the Daytona-Ormond Beach being one of the most common destinations because the beach had the wide-open space that was needed for the cars to reach high speeds. 

The quest to break 200 mph crescendoed on March 27, 1927, when 30,000 people witnessed Major Henry Segrave break the barrier with a top speed of 203.792 mph. 

And thus began other drivers flocking to the Daytona-Ormond Beach, drivers like Frank Lockhart and Ray Keech to break the record and enjoy the celebrity that came with it.

The land speed records were not without risk and tragedy. Both Keech and Lockhart were hospitalized in early 1928 after misfortunes. Two months later on April 25, 1928, Frank Lockhard went back to the beach to attempt to break the land record however, Lockhart was thrown from his car and the Indianapolis 500 champion was killed instantly. 

In 1929, Major Henry Seagrave returned back to the beach and reclaimed his record, topping out at 231.446 mph. This achievement earned the Brit knighthood. Malcolm Campbell countered two years later with speeds that topped out at 246.575 mph – a feat also earning him a knighthood. 

Land speed records were popular and held at the Daytona-Ormond Beach until 1935 when it became clear that the 272.46 mph that Sir Campbell set in 1933 was not going to be beaten at the beach. Sir Campbell set out towards the salt flats in Utah in pursuit of breaking the 300 mph barrier, effectively ending Daytona-Ormond Beach’s reign as the premier destination to set land speed records. 

The rest of the story is pretty well known to NASCAR fans — Bill France arrives in Daytona Beach, a racer who realizes that there was a need for promoters. As a promoter, in turn, he recognized the need for organization which eventually led to NASCAR’s birth. 

And when the crowds outgrew the beaches, France built Daytona International Speedway, which he called the “World Center of Racing”, headquartering the growing NASCAR. The first Daytona 500 was held in 1959 and has been held every year since then. 

Featured photo of Abe Jenkins circ. 1920, photo courtesy of Florida Memory

Published by Pit Box Press Staff

This article was a collaboration between multiple writers at Pit Box Press.

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