The Dawn Of Speed

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It has been said that motor sport was the first organized activity in America that drew all social classes together. Certainly William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., and Barney Oldfield would have been unlikely to have exchanged pleasantries otherwise. Vanderbilt, elegant, impeccably groomed, was scion to one of the world’s great fortunes, whose childhood attack of the measles made the society pages, whose wedding occupied eight full news columns in New York papers. Oldfield, stocky, sometimes disheveled, invariably with a stubby cigar clenched in his teeth, was a former bellhop and newsboy, profane and anti-establishment, whose name appeared only on sports pages and the occasional police blotter. The races on the long stretch of sand linking Ormond and Daytona brought them together, racing against each other and against the clock.

Beach racing made wonderful sense at the turn of the century. Unlike Europe, whose fine roadways went back to Napoleonic times and beyond, the United States was ill prepared for the burgeoning horseless age. Less than 7 percent of the nation’s roads were surfaced at all, which meant that except for horse tracks occasionally rented for the purpose, there were few places in America to exercise one’s automobile.

That the automobile was the rich man’s plaything and suffered a work-of-the-devil reputation during this period is a commonplace—and only partly true. “The racing fever burns in the veins of every motor crank,” a New York World reporter wrote. “Every man with thirty cents in his bank account talks about buying a motor car.” The rich’s ability to buy, and to spend, was the reason the beach races were aimed at the Vanderbilt set more than the Oldfield crowd. Occupancy in the area’s elegant and expensive hotels quadrupled during the weeks of motor sport, but the egalitarian aspect assumed by the beach races added color to the scene, as did the increasingly fierce rivalry between Ormond and Daytona.

To Daytona goes credit for the beach racing idea, which was first suggested by James Foster Hathaway, who had made his fortune in Massachusetts and who migrated to Daytona’s Clarendon Hotel each winter. To Ormond goes credit for first turning the sands into a speedway. America’s two most successful gasoline-automobile manufacturers were guests at the Ormond Hotel when the proprietors, John Anderson and Joseph D. Price, approached them with Hathaway’s idea. “They got myself and Winton to fit out racing cars and put on those races in the middle of April,” Ransom Eli Olds remembered years later.

It was 1902. There were few more than five thousand native-built cars in the United States, mostly in urban areas, most of them steam and electric carriages produced in the East. But, in Michigan, Olds was about to outproduce either type with his curved-dash runabout (which was to be immortalized in song as “My Merry Oldsmobile”). As for Alexander Winton of Cleveland, he had been the first man in the nation to produce one hundred gasoline cars, and he had done so before the turn of the century, selling number twelve to one James Ward Packard, whose complaints regarding his purchase so enraged its creator that on a last, memorable visit to the factory, Packard was summarily told that the “Winton wagon as it stood was the ripened and perfected product of many years of lofty thought” (actually, three) and that “if Mr. Packard wanted any of his own cats and dogs worked into a wagon, he had better build it himself.” Of course, Mr. Packard did. The intransigence the episode suggests is one reason we are not driving Wintons today.

Nonetheless, in 1902 Winton was in accord with Olds that publicity helped sales. Winton already had a car in which to compete. Indeed, he was one of the top race drivers in the country, his Bullet thus far beaten only occasionally by the machines of an automobile mechanic he had deemed too unpromising for employment in his factory: Henry Ford. But Ransom Olds had to build a race car for that first foray on the beach—a skeletal contrivance with a single-cylinder engine, rocket-like gas tanks, sulky-type seat complete with stirrups, all and sundry resting on four spidery cycle wheels. He called it the Pirate. Winton’s Bullet was more substantial, with a four-cylinder engine, sturdy wooden wheels, a stout seat, and even a radiator mounted up front, although this last looked rather like a bale of hay.

About fifty spectators were rounded up. The race was on. “Winton cut notches in his tires, feeling [they] were slipping on the beach,” Olds recalled, “but it did not seem to help out the speed of the car.” Both Olds and Winton were clocked at exactly 57 miles per hour. This seems unlikely, but it allowed each to advertise the salutary result and was probably the idea of the Ormond Hotel proprietors, who wanted both drivers back the following year.