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Why Daytona Became the Worlds Most Famous Beach

Ransom Olds’ 1903 Car “The Pirate”

Published on April 5, 2019 by Dennis Ynclan

Daytona Beach is known for many things. It’s the home of The Daytona 500, which starts the NASCAR’S season every year in February, considered the “Super Bowl” of racing. Many people think of Daytona Beach and Spring Break. The city welcomed college students back in the 60’s, 70’s, & 80’s. They stopped advertising to campus’ back in the early 90’s. But we still get our share of these visitors every spring. Still others associate Bike Week & Daytona. Our March Bike Week is one of the largest and oldest motorcycle rallies in the country and just celebrated its 78th year!

Being a resident of Daytona Beach since 1975 I’ve seen a lot of changes on what is known as “The World’s Most Famous Beach”.Today we are a beach front community, with retirees and families living here. Over 10 million folks visited our shores last year. They come for the events, our hard-packed sand, wide beach, and temperate climate.

So how did we get that nick name “The World’s Most Famous Beach”? It all starts back in the early 1900’s. At the turn of the 20th Century when the “Horseless Carriage” became a plaything for the wealthy. But, driving, in a world meant for horses, wasn’t easy. Hard smooth surfaced roadways didn’t exist. Without that drivers couldn’t really test the speed of their new self-powered machines.

Some records show beach racing started in 1902, but the first official timed race was in 1903. That was between Ransom Olds’ “Pirate” and Alexander Winton’s “Bullet”. On March 26,1903 they did their first timed race using a measured mile. The “Bullet” beat the “Pirate” by .2 seconds setting an American land speed record of 68.198 miles per hour.

Ransom Olds’ 1903 Car “The Pirate” 

FYI Old’s started the Oldsmobile car company, his driver, H.T. Thomas, became the supervising engineer. Alexander Winton is credited by many as the founder of the American Automobile Industry. He sold the first production gas powered car to a private individual in March of 1898. History shows we were in the presence of “Automobile Greatness”.

The race was held event during a week-long “Winter Carnival” organized by Henry Flagler’s Ormond Hotel. This was the beginning of what came to be known as Speed Weeks. Flagler built the Ormond Hotel and connected it by a railroad spur to his Florida East Coast Railroad. Flagler was one of the earliest hotel developers and tourism promoters of Florida. His clientèle were the wealthy East Coast Elite escaping the cold winters. Many came in for the “season” which ran from December to April. One, John D. Rockefeller, even built his winter home across from the Ormond Hotel. That’s the original John D, the wealthiest man in the world at that time!

The Winston Bullet Beat the Olds Pirate in 1903

Imagine March 1903 and the who’s who of wealthy playboys arrive to test out their machines on Daytona’s hard packed smooth sandy beach. The time of the event depended on the tide, the “course” width was also tide determined and could be 500 feet wide at low tide. The challenge is we have 2 high tides and 2 low tides every day with the time moving about 45 minutes each day. Schedules had to be flexible.  

It’s interesting to note these early racers were not only gasoline powered, but steam and electric power were also used. Remember there were no gas stations at this time. Steam powered cars were even outselling gasoline powered, they could use the horse’s water troughs for the water they needed and those were easily available, kind of like gas stations today.  

William K. Vanderbilt started 1904 racing with his run on January 27 and set the first recorded world land speed record over Daytona’s measured mile. His Mercedes made the run at 92.30 mph. That’s Vanderbilt, of the shipping and railroading family that created Vanderbilt University, many New Port Mansions, and built The Biltmore in North Carolina!

The 1904 the speed racing expanded and included motorcycles. Glenn Curtis setting a 67.36 mph record on his 2-cylinder bike. That record held for 7 years. The auto record was broken 3 times, in a 30-minute span! Vanderbilt’s world record of 92.30 mph was first broken by Louis Ross in his steam powered car, the Wogglebug at 94.73 mph.  

Five minutes later that was broken by Arthur MacDonald in his Napier at 104.65 mph. The final record went to HL Bowden in his Mercedes at 109.76 mph! But that one wasn’t recognized by the Automobile Club of France, since the car exceeded the 1000KG weight limit set by that sanctioning body.

Stanley Steamer Rocket in 1906 Fred Marriott driving

With steam powered cars from the Stanley Steamer out selling gasoline powered cars, they wanted to prove how fast they were. In 1906 they went for the land speed record. Driver Fred Marriott bought the Rocket 2, the most aerodynamic car of the day, to Daytona. He set the record at 127.659. That held for 4 years! He

Rebuilt Stanley Steamer Rocket in 2006 on Centennial of the 1906 run

tried to break the 150-mph barrier in 1907, was going at 190, then hit a gully on the beach sending the car airborne. It split in 2 but, amazingly, he survived. Stanly Steamer pulled the car from racing feeling it could not withstand the speeds Fred could generate. Because of the crash no official speed record was made.

During this time 15 world records were set up to 1935. There were also wheel to wheel racing over a 3-mile course that was later expanded to 4.2 miles when racing resumed after World War II.

Sir Malcom Campbell with one of his “Bluebirds”

Jumping to the 1920’s Sir Malcom Campbell came to Daytona. He had already set 2 land speed records on the beaches in West Wales England at 146.163 mph in 1924 and 150.766 mph in 1925. He lost the title as the world’s fastest man in 1926 and went on to build his first Bluebird land speed race car. In 1927, on Daytona Beach he set a new record at 174.883 mph, came back and set it again in 1928 at 206.956 mph. Breaking the 200-mph barrier. Not to rest on his laurels in 1931 he came back setting records at 246.088 mph, then 253.968 mph in 32, 272.465 mph in 33, and 276.710 mph in 1935. All in pursuit of breaking the 300 mph barrier. On the run at 276.710 in 1935 he did break the barrier in one direction, exceeding 300 mph right on Daytona Beach! But the recorded record consisted of the average speed over a north south run. Wind picked up slowing him down on the return run. He finally broke the 300-mile barrier on the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah in September of 1935. Remember this was all being done on the beach at low tide! Plus, the smoothness was set by the surf. It was decided they needed a wider surface as speeds exceeded 200 mph.      

Bluebird and other record holders on Daytona Beach

While land speed records moved to Utah wheel to wheel racing continued. The city promoting it in 1936, and then the Daytona Beach Elks club in 1937.  They both lost money. To keep it going promoting races was taken over by Bill France, SR in 1938, who finally turned a profit on both races that year. Back then there was a July race and one on Labor Day weekend. The vehicle of choice became cars you could buy off the lot or “stock” cars. While one chapter closed a new one opened up and the legacy of racing was just getting started!  

With the who’s who coming here for the racing activity, the east coast elite escaping the cold winters, plus savvy promotion of these events, and having railroad to bring people and equipment here, by the 1920’s Daytona Beach had its nickname “The World’s most Famous Beach”.

The next time you are on our beach sunning yourself, fishing, walking on the beach, catching a wave, or riding a bike on the sand, just think of who came before you. You are sharing the same sand that Rockefeller, Ford, Edison, Vanderbilt, and Campbell all came to. Maybe, if you really listen, you’ll even hear the distant sounds of our beach legacy. You can still do your own version of beach racing, at no more than 10 mph, and still drive on designated sections of our 28 miles of beach.

If you’d like to spend some time here check out our web site

We offer 9 ocean front condominiums setting directly on these famous sands! Or just call 800-262-6535 or 386-871-6550.    

Travel Tip created by Dennis & Carmen in association with Vacation SoupShareTweetPin Meet The Author

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