The Dawn Of Speed


Only one machine at Ormond-Daytona was as powerful: Winton’s new Bullet, which the Cleveland manufacturer, taking a cue from Ransom Olds, entrusted to a professional driver. In later years Barney Oldfield, born poor in Ohio and unschooled past the age of twelve, liked to say that his first driving assignment was an elevator in the Monticello Hotel in Toledo. A bicycle was next, and his odd jobs ended; Oldfield was a fearless racing cyclist. The talent scouts who discovered him for automobile competition were Henry Ford and Tom Cooper, who put him behind the wheel of Ford’s 999, a car so scary that its builders were not initially eager to race it themselves. Oldfield won his first event, a match against Winton and two others, and thereafter campaigned 999 and its companion Ford Arrow at fairgrounds throughout the East and Midwest. When Winton came up with a more powerful car and offered Oldfield a job, Oldfield promptly took it. His only allegiance was to speed.

Vanderbilt set a mile record of 39 seconds. “Really, I did surprise myself,” he said.

But Barney was fond of late-night carousing, too, and Vanderbilt was first on the beach with his car. By 6:00 A.M. he was practicing, and soon after he asked to go for the record. Situating eight timers with split-second watches took a while, but once in his car, Willie K., as he was known, required only 39 seconds for the flying mile—92.3 mph, the first world land speed record made on American soil. Although again European officialdom would choose not to recognize the mark, protesting that the AAA had not yet been officially recognized as a sanctioning body, Vanderbilt could not have known that as he stepped triumphantly from his car. “Really, I did surprise myself,” he said modestly.

Watching quietly from the sidelines with his wife, Clara, was Henry Ford. He hurried back to the hotel to wire the factory to ship his Lake St. Clair car down, but the 999 did not arrive in Florida until the races were over.

Among the first to reach Vanderbilt on the sand with a congratulatory handshake was Oldfield, who said he would try for 38 seconds. “I hope you do,” the new world speed champion replied, “and I will try to make it 37.”

Actually, 39 seconds would not be bettered all week. Speed runs were always made in favoring winds, and the only time the winds were again so favorable, the tide was in. But there was plenty of spirited racing left: match races, invitationals for “gentlemen operators,” handicaps, free-for-alls, AAA championships for distances of one, ten, and fifty miles. Except for those races socially restricted, the events one competed in depended largely upon the competition one wished to go up against. F. A. La Roche, the New York importer of the French Darracq, entered every race he could in his Darracq; some “gentlemen operators” preferred to compete only against fellow sportsmen. Some traveled to Florida simply to watch, like the architect Stanford White, who accompanied his friend James L. Breese, winner of the first heat of the five-mile invitational in his Mercedes, and the actress Irene Bentley, invited by her friend Viola Clemmons, who had retired from the stage upon becoming Mrs. Howard Gould.

But the superstar of the 1904 Speed Carnival was Willie K. Vanderbilt. He won every race except the final of the one-mile AAA championship just before the tide came in on Thursday afternoon. That was his first competition against Oldfield, and they were radiator to radiator until Willie K.’s miscalculation with a shift allowed Barney to surge ahead. Vanderbilt looked glum afterward but declared it a fair out-and-out beat. A rematch proved impossible, unfortunately, because Oldfield’s crankshaft broke early Friday morning, distressing both drivers, not to mention all the spectators who had bet on the rematch outcome.

Without Oldfield to challenge, Vanderbilt swept every event he entered in the two remaining days of the Speed Carnival —for a grand total of seven straightaway records and six race victories. The press attention his exploits brought made him uncomfortable, but he obliged with interviews affably and with photographs reluctantly. Oldfield smiled for the camera on every available opportunity. He had his public to think about, and he was as great a showman as he was a race driver. Still, Vanderbilt was a popular winner, “a bully good democratic fellow,” as one reporter said with a suggestion of surprise, “not to blame for being a society swell and millionaire.”

His car laden with trophies, Vanderbilt departed for Palm Beach after informing the race committee he would donate a prize for a hundred-mile race the following year. Nor was that all. Word of the success of the Florida Speed Carnival spread, and soon, from Britain, came the announcement of Sir Thomas Dewar that he wished to donate a trophy, too, for an international mile record run.