Shortly after thecentury turned, a band of social sportsmen went down to Florida to play in thesand. They brought along a new toy, the sports car, which they delighted inracing along the hard-packed, Atlantic-washed shore line of Ormond Beach. In1902 W. Gould Brokaw showed up in a 60 hp Renault. Soon William K. VanderbiltJr. was on hand with a Mercedes, a horseless carriage that would pull like 90horses. Spectators came to watch in tweeds and wing collars, parking theirfringed surreys at the edge of the grassy dunes, crunching their bowlers overtheir ears and turning up the velvet collars of their Chesterfields against thechill wind that only lately had swept the coast of Portugal, 3,000 mileseastward across the sea.
There were someunsocial aficionados too. An inventor, Henry Ford, lived in a breeze-blown tenton the sand. But he couldn't scrape together enough money to have his crackedcrankshaft repaired, and he was never in the running. Alexander Winton, in capand goggles, leaned on the bare steering wheel of the Winton Bullet, acontraption that was little more than an engine and a chassis mounted on fourwire wheels, and sent it zooming down the sands at 68.198 mph, a newrecord.
When Willy K.Vanderbilt cracked a new world's record in his Mercedes the next year, a wholestream of speed fanciers headed South. They bore names famous to racing, andsome that would be emblazoned on hubcaps the world over and become householdwords in the decades that followed. They were Ransom E. Olds, who gave his nameto the Oldsmobile and his initials to the Reo; Lancia of Italy and Chevrolet ofFrance, and F. E. Stanley, who built the Steamer.
The raceway wasincomparable. From Ormond, the beach stretched southward to Daytona, a flat,gleaming straightaway for 23 unbroken miles, water-cooled and resurfaced by thetide twice a day. Daytona became Speed City by-the-sea. Demogeot in aneight-cylinder Darracq covered an amazing two miles in less than a minute, andsoon Major H.O.D. Segrave and Sir Malcolm Campbell were roaring up the sands atbetter than 200 mph. By 1935 Campbell and his Bluebird had done Daytona at276.82.
The sand stripwhich the social sports car enthusiasts discovered in the first years of thecentury is now officially classified as a state highway. It is safe to say thatit is the only state highway in the nation that is underwater half the time.During the times that it is high, flat and dry, it becomes a concourse forthousands of motorists either en route between Miami and the northlands ormerely joy riding on what Daytona immodestly refers to as The World's MostFamous Beach.
Although thespeed limit is 10 mph, a driver who would like to burst the bonds of proprietyand the law may race over the sands once each year—during the Speed Week justended. Those who tried paid $10 to join NASCAR and another $2 forhospitalization insurance against possible croppers (none cropped). Any driverable to get the family jalopy up to 100 mph over the two-way course qualifiedfor membership in the Century Club (a few made it).
There are signsthat the mechanized pilgrimage may move from the beach to the mainland side ofDaytona, where plans are afoot to build the fastest 2½-mile speedway inexistence. Instead of the standard oval shape, the Daytona Raceway will be amodified triangle with three straightaways. With stands for 30,000, it willcover a 600-acre site adjacent to the Daytona Airport. The nation's largeststock car races will be held in February and an Indianapolis-type event over a300-mile course will be held in July. If the project is financed in time, itwill be ready in 1956, the object being to perpetuate racing in Daytona, itsnatural birthplace, rather than Indianapolis, its adopted home, or theBonneville Salt Flats of Utah, an upstart competitor.
A deserted sandbar in its early racing days, Daytona Beach now has 15 miles of motels, canhouse 35,000 visitors a night in all its installations. The dunes where Fordpitched his tent are now a beachfront occupied by Ellinor Village, the nation'slargest family resort, with a capacity of 3,000. Last year Daytona's motelssent so many people to the Speed Week races that the promoters had to stopselling tickets.
When there are noraces Daytona visitors can browse through the new Museum of Speed, whichcontains Sir Malcolm Campbell's Bluebird and other immortals of the sands. Orwith Walter Mitty dreams, they can send their own Benevolent Buick along theWorld's Most Famous Beach, albeit at 10 mph, or rent a-horsepower gas runaboutthat can't make more than 10 miles an hour, or ride a bicycle (15 mph), or evena live, saddled, longhorn steer (2 mph), rented for such purposes. Overhead,Daytona's sea gulls will wheel and wing and catch bread bits on the fly andclip crusts out of your hand. And far above, down from the Naval Air Station atJacksonville, Banshees and Cutlasses (600 mph), the new speed merchants, chalklazy vapor doodles on the blue, flying over the Daytona Speedway like homingpigeons out of a new era, drawn irresistibly to their right cote.