The Dawn Of Speed


The Automobile regarded the next year’s beach racing as a splendid success. To The Motor World it was dismal and disappointing, or as the headline pointedly put it, RECORD BREAKING ALONE SAVES THE FLORIDA CARNIVAL FROM ABJECT FAILURE. Especially distressing to that magazine’s editors was the diminished number of society people attending. Undeniably the Speed Carnival of 1906 was more businesslike than its predecessors. Most of the drivers were professionals; most of the cars were factory-entered. Ransom Olds, who by now had left the Olds Motor Works following a dispute with his board over the discontinuation of the curved-dash Oldsmobile, had a new company using his initials as its name and a Reo race car on the beach. Henry Ford was back with the racing Model K, bringing a party of associates, including Horace Dodge, one of his component suppliers. From Italy, F.I.A.T. (as it was written then, translating to Fabbrica Italiana Automobili, Torino) sent a car over with the factory racing ace Vincenzo Lancia. A Napier returned from England. From France came the driver Victor Hémery, four Darracqs—and trouble.

Hémery was a hothead. At the weighing in, when the lightest Darracq was declared forty-four pounds too heavy for the class in which he wanted to enter it, his outburst was recognized as profanity even by those with no knowledge of French. During early qualifying runs, seeing Fred Marriott’s Stanley Steamer as his most formidable opposition, Hémery pulled alongside the car and revved his engine furiously, in hopes that flames from the Darracq’s exhaust might set the Stanley’s canvas-and-wood body afire. Transatlantic cables flew between Florida and the Darracq factory in France about the problem. Ultimately the AAA disqualified Hémery and shrewdly resolved the ticklish diplomatic situation by turning over some of his scheduled runs to Louis Chevrolet, an up-and-coming race driver from Brooklyn who had emigrated to America from France (and who, a half-dozen years later, had his name on a production car). The Stanley survived Hémery’s arson attempt to win a total of six races and make a sensational straightaway run that exceeded two miles a minute for the first time in history.

Both Ransom Olds and Henry Ford were disappointed with their cars’ performances on the beach, and each returned to Michigan to focus attention on manufacturing. Ford was soon to begin development of a new production model designated T; Olds was about to add a truck to his Reo line.

Society was even less in attendance at the beach the next year. Partly this was the result of the commercialization of the 1906 Speed Carnival, which was seen as déclassé. The Florida Times-Union’s contest to find the “prettiest girl in the state” to crown the speed king of the week, the opening of the Ormond Hotel to “programme peddlers in evening dress,” and the presence of a trick cyclist who was allowed to pass his cap in the lobby had persuaded one wealthy guest to remark about “dropping a sausage on a page of poems.”

Europeans stayed away in 1907 largely because the impending inaugural of the new highly banked Brooklands track in England held promise for speeds as fast as Ormond-Daytona. American gasoline car manufacturers stayed away because they did not believe they could equal the Stanley’s speed of 1906, and the Stanley factory had announced for 1907 a new steam racer that was to be even faster.

How fast the new Stanley was would never be known. Beach conditions were abysmal much of the week. F. E. Stanley timed Marriott at just under thirty seconds during a bumpy trial mile, after which the race driver said that at full bore in the official run he would “skim right over” the “two little ripples” he had felt during practice. Instead, the ripples caused a terrible crash. Marriott miraculously survived, but the accident so shook the Stanleys they announced their immediate retirement from racing.

The week’s most spectacular performance was Glenn Curtiss’s straightaway speed record on a V-8-engined motorcycle. Amid the press attention to the Marriott accident, Curtiss was largely ignored in Florida, but not elsewhere. Alexander Graham Bell invited the motorcyclist to join his Aerial Experiment Association, and in 1908, in an airplane using the same V-8 engine, Curtiss made the first official public flights in the Western Hemisphere.

On the east coast of Florida, meanwhile, Ormond-Daytona officials met to discuss what had gone wrong with their races. They came to three conclusions: “Speed freaks” were not crowd pleasers; the dominance of a steam-powered machine had irked gasoline-auto manufacturers, who by now were in the vast majority in the industry; and the weather on the beach in January could be mercurial. The problems were easily solved. Stanley had already assisted by withdrawing from competition, the 1908 carnival was moved to March, and only entries of automobiles “along accepted and legitimate lines” were allowed.