The Dawn Of Speed

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Daytona, 1902: about fifty spectators were rounded up, and the race was on.

And so they were. Spectators numbered three thousand in 1903; competitors numbered three. James Hathaway was timed in his Stanley Steamer at a little under a minute and a half. The stars of the show remained the Bullet and the Pirate, both revamped, Olds sending a factory test driver along to pilot his car, Winton remaining behind the wheel of the Bullet. The Pirate did a mile in a little over a minute; the Bullet a little under.

The real winner was the beach, smooth as a billiards table and the “finest natural racecourse in the world,” as Winton exclaimed. Wealthy local residents had been persuaded to bring their cars out for runs on the sand, and a reporter wrote: “Bluff and beach were thronged with the summer-garbed crowds of fashionable men and women, who make up most of the winter population. There was a sprinkling of open-eyed and open-mouthed ‘crackers,’ and ‘pickaninnies’ tumbled and played about the beach in swarms. The tout ensemble was interesting and unique....”

Afterward the participants gathered to form the Florida East Coast Automobile Association and make the races an annual event. Both Daytona and Ormond people were present at the creation, and relations seem to have been friendly. The prospect of a healthy influx of visitors to the area each year was enticing, and one outsider in the group painted a particularly rosy picture. He was William J. Morgan of New Jersey, whom everyone knew as “the Senator.” A former racing cyclist, Morgan was now among the powers at The Automobile, one of the best motoring magazines of the day. A natural promoter, he was perfect for the Ormond-Daytona cause, and the free advertising and national publicity his magazine could provide helped ensure his selection as the association’s business manager.

Because Ransom Olds and Alexander Winton could be counted upon to spread the beach-racing word in the Midwest, Morgan spent the next nine months drumming up enthusiasm on the East Coast from the New York City editorial offices of The Automobile. It wasn’t difficult. He simply said that Ormond-Daytona would be America’s Nice. Since before the turn of the century, Europe’s motoring aristocracy had journeyed to that fashionable Riviera city for a week of racing each year, a fact well known among America’s wealthy automobile enthusiasts. Some of them had participated, and all of them were aware of the 1901 meet, when the Daimler automobile dealer Emil Jellinek stunned the Continent by sweeping Nice’s speed week in a Daimler he had ordered especially and named for his daughter Mercedes. By now the Daimler company had decided that calling all its cars Mercedes was a good idea.

There would be lots of them at Ormond-Daytona. Society’s ladies might motor sedately in their low-powered American electrics; society’s gentlemen preferred dashing about in high-powered gasoline cars purchased from Europe. Not a single American sportsman competed on the beach in 1904 with an American car. A Renault was the choice of W. Gould Brokaw, whose town house was on Madison Avenue and whose Long Island estate was called “Nirvana.” And there was a smattering of other French machines. But the overwhelming choice this year was the German Mercedes.

 

Morgan had scheduled the Florida Speed Carnival to begin in late January, immediately following the New York Automobile Show at the Grand Central Palace, the premier automotive social event up north. Scarcely had its doors closed than show visitors headed south, some of them in their own private railway cars.

Arrival in Florida brought some bickering about the expense involved in transporting the automobiles down, but that was forgotten soon after the unloading of the cars and the onset of festivities. All the hotels in the area were filled to capacity; the Ormond Hotel was the designated headquarters. The talk there the night before the races began was largely about one man. On January 12, 1904, Henry Ford had driven his latest racing car over the ice of Lake St. Clair in Michigan at 91.37 mph, the fastest automobile speed thus far recorded in the Americas. Whether a frozen-water run qualified as a land speed record was hotly debated by the American Automobile Association (AAA), but the mark had been allowed on January 20. Across the Atlantic, European motor-sport officialdom just snickered and would not even consider it. Sand would certainly qualify as land anywhere, however, and one of the competitors staying at the Ormond Hotel was sure he could better Ford’s speed. Two years earlier, while jousting near Albi, France, with his friend the Baron Henri de Rothschild, William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., had driven his French-made 60-hp Mors 76.08 mph. Now his mount was a custom-built 90-hp Mercedes.