The Dawn Of Speed


So the 1908 Florida Speed Carnival was better. A particular crowd pleaser that year was David Bruce-Brown, whose family was in New York’s Social Register and who had run away from school to attend the races. Following their conclusion, the seventeen-year-old, who had served as an unpaid grease monkey for the F.I.A.T. Cyclone that had taken most of the speed records, begged the car’s owner, the auto importer E. Rand Hollander, to allow him the wheel for an attempt on the Vanderbilt 39-second amateur record for the mile still on the books from 1904. The publicity accruing should the boy break Willie K.’s mark persuaded Hollander to agree, and with timers and wire traps set Bruce-Brown drove the Cyclone a mile in 35.6 seconds.

Young Bruce-Brown was the star the next year, too, lowering the amateur mile to 33 seconds flat in a 120-hp Benz and winning the coveted Dewar Cup. His mother threatened to disinherit him if he continued racing. (Unfortunately Bruce-Brown won her over and kept at it; he was killed in 1912 while practicing for the Grand Prize road race in Milwaukee.)

Despite Bruce-Brown’s showing, the 1909 beach races lost money, and Daytona lost enthusiasm. Falling revenues had prompted Ormond to decline participation that year, and now its rival also withdrew. This was perhaps the first time the two towns had agreed on anything since soon after the tournaments began.

Beach racing might have died with the whimper of 1909 except for Barney Oldfield. He was the most famous race driver in America. Now he planned to take on the world. The Stanley Steamer’s 127 mph in 1906 remained the fastest any automobile had thus far traveled; Old-field had just bought a 200-hp Benz that the tempestuous Victor Hémery had pushed to 125.9 mph, at Brooklands, England, as much as that 2.75-mile banked circuit would allow. The tide-washed 20-plus miles of sand in Florida beckoned.

Scarcely had W. J. Morgan announced there would be no beach racing in 1910 than his statement was retracted. Under the auspices of the Florida East Coast Automobile Association and the sanction of the AAA, the Speed Carnival was reinstated in March “chiefly to give Barney Oldfield an opportunity to attack world’s straightaway records.”

Oldfield’s name was sufficient to ensure the success of the carnival, but to spice the proceedings, competing cars were encouraged to enter. Accepting the challenge were David Bruce-Brown with the 120-hp Benz, who wanted only to lower his personal record, and the Brooklyn inventor J. Walter Christie, who had seldom missed the annual Florida events and in whom hope sprang eternal. For years Christie had been promoting the concept of front-wheel drive with missionary zeal and, except for the sale of a couple of his competition cars to W. Gould Brokaw, without success. “It’s no shame to be poor,” Christie once said, “but it’s damn inconvenient.” But the 100-hp of Christie’s V-4 engine was no match for the Benz.

Oldfield put on a spectacular show. “Me and the Benz here, we’re gonna warm up the sand a little,” he shouted as he put cotton plugs in his ears and a cigar in his mouth before the mile run. The sand was warmed to 131.724 mph. “As near to the absolute limit of speed as humanity will ever travel,” said Barney loftily. The Florida Times-Union declared that only a bullet had traveled faster, making a superb advertising line for the Benz importer in New York. Kaiser Wilhelm II cabled congratulations from Germany.

Thereafter Oldfield barnstormed the nation with the Benz, until that fall, when he engineered a match race against the heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson—a fine gimmick but illegal because Johnson was not an accredited race driver. Suspended by the AAA for a year, Oldfield raced in Mexico for a while, then sold the Benz to his manager, Ernie Moross, announced his retirement, and opened a saloon in Los Angeles.

To Oldfield’s considerable chagrin, Moross returned the Benz to the beach at Daytona in April 1911. His driver was Bob Burman, as shy as Oldfield was gregarious, but easily as fearless. There were no challengers to the car this time, but still, a large crowd gathered along the measured mile to watch Burman try for a new record.

“‘Here he comes—there he goes!’ summed up the story of the ride in a nutshell,” reported The Horseless Age after the run. Burman’s speed was 141.732 mph—a full ten miles an hour faster than Oldfield’s. This is not to suggest that Burman was the better driver; Barney had typically held back during his Benz run so he could promote another “go-for-the-record” exhibition. Needless to say, Oldfield was furious and came out of retirement to seek vengeance. But the “fastest speed at which man has ever traveled over the earth’s surface” belonged to Burman for eight years. So phenomenal was 141-plus mph that automobile makers throughout the world were loath to consider building a car to attempt to top it.