There are certain areas in the world that, for reasons not fully explainable, become synonymous with all thingsspeed. Consider Le Mans for example, a small French city, 120 miles to the west of Paris, that is otherwise unremarkable. However, somewhere along the line it has assumed the persona of a Clark Kent, periodically tearing aside the tranquil and humdrum life of a provincial centre to adopt the super hero status of speed and excitement. In 1906 the first Grand Prix was run on a track to the East of the city, two years later Wilbur Wright completed the first powered flight in Europe nearby. Then, this hallowed piece of tarmac was, 15 years later, to form part of the first Circuit de la Sarthe, upon which the Le Mans 24 Hours has been run ever since. On the other side of the Atlantic, Indianapolis would reasonably make a similar claim to fame as would a small town on Florida's Atlantic coastline, Daytona Beach. As most of you will be aware, this is the site for Daytona International Speedway and also serves as the location of NASCAR headquarters. Before there was Daytona International Speedway, it was the beach itself which provided racing surface.
Being flat and wide, over 20 miles in length, the beach at Daytona was ideal for motorsport and early speed record attempts. It was formed of millions of wet-packed coquina shell fragments, and at low tide with the right conditions this surface took on the properties of concrete. Another major factor establishing Daytona was industrialist, Henry Flagler's involvement.
Flagler was a partner in Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller, indeed he is credited with being the brains behind its success. He built the Florida East Coast Railway and resorts such as the Ormond Hotel to accommodate the guests brought south by his railway. Flagler built a garage on Ormond Beach, known as Gasoline Alley, to encourage automobile competition as an attraction for the guests of his nearby property. The garage was used by motoring pioneers such as Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet, and it is said that Henry would sleep with his car in the garage to avoid the high cost of a room at the Ormond Hotel.
In 1903 the Florida Speed Week was first held, and a year later William K. Vanderbilt Jr. broke the flying mile record, with a speed of 92.30 mph in his Mercedes 90. This World Record put the Volusia County race track on the map and records continued to be broken, including the Stanley Brothers Steamer that Fred Marriott drove to an astounding 127.66 mph - becoming the first man to breach the two-miles-a-minute barrier.
In 1910 the Germans, in the shape of Benz, were back at the top when Barney Oldfield broke the world record for the measured mile at 131.72 mph. A year later, the same Blitzen Benz was back on the sand and in the hands of Bob Burman the bar was raised to 141.37mph, this record stood for the next eight years. The Blitzen Benz forms part of the Mercedes Benz Classic Collection and was on display at last year's Retromobile (see above).
After the First World War, the pace of record breaking accelerated and the cars became increasingly specialised and powerful. Daytona Beach became the focus for these attempts as it was one of the few sites with enough unfettered surface to generate the high speed necessary to take the record. Major Henry O'Neill DeHane Segrave had already captured the land speed record in March 1926 when he posted 152.33 mph in his 4 litre Sunbeam. The record lasted for just six weeks then JG Parry Thomas raised the bar to 171.02 mph.
The 200 mph mark beckoned, but to achieve such speed a huge increase in power was needed. Sunbeam's designer, Louis Coatalen, came up with the ingenious and cost effective idea of utilising not one, but two 22.5 litre Matabele aero engines that were surplus to requirements and lying around the Sunbeam factory. Publicity was generated by calling the monster the '1,000 h.p. Sunbeam' even if the actual power available was less than this figure.
The streamlined car was shipped to Florida and on 29th March 1927 and in front of over 30,000 spectators Seagrave reclaimed the record with an astounding 203.792 mph. Barely had the sands settled on Daytona Beach when Malcolm Campbell brought out Bluebird to take the record back once again.
The patriotic home contingent also wanted to get into the headlines, for these exploits were now front page news, the drivers became celebrities, feted wherever they went. Snapping at the record came first Frank Lockhart, and then Ray Keech, with attempts on the title held by Campbell. Lockhart and Keech each had misfortunes during their runs during the 1928 Speed Week, leaving them both hospitalised. Two months later Keech wrestled the record back for America, literally, as his White Triplex Special had three 12-cylinder 27-litre Liberty aircraft engines to power it. With a total engine displacement of 81 litres it was a beast in every sense. Three days passed and it was Lockhart's turn to go for the record in the contrasting elegant Black Hawk Stutz. A rear tyre punctured at a speed of around 225 mph and Lockhart was killed in the resulting accident.
Fellow Driving Line contributor Tim Sutton wrote about Lockhart and the Stutz last year.
Sir Henry Segrave was back to Daytona Beach in 1929 with his Irving Napier, popularly known as the Golden Arrow. After a two week delay caused by bad weather, and in front of an estimated crowd in excess of 100,000, he reclaimed the record with a speed of 231.446 mph, for this achievement Segrave was knighted. A stark reminder of the dangers faced in pursuit of the land speed record happened the following day when the Triplex Special was run again, the time with Lee Bible at the wheel. He lost control during his second run and was killed.
It was then the turn of Malcolm Campbell to try and recapture the top spot. In February 1931 he brought his latest incarnation of Bluebird back to Daytona Beach where he stopped the clocks at 246.575 mph, the first man to cover four miles a minute. For this feat, he too received a knighthood. At this time the news was received that Segrave had lost his life attacking the world water speed record on Lake Windermere - these were abnormally brave men.
In 1932 and 1933 Campbell returned to Florida raising the record to 253.97 mph the first year and then to 272.46 mph the next year. Two years later Sir Malcolm and another revised Bluebird were back in Daytona with the 300 mph as the target. After an eight week delay due to unfavourable conditions he managed to raise the record by just 4 mph, it was the end of Daytona Beach as a land speed record venue.
Campbell headed across America bound for the Salt Flats of Bonneville, chasing his holy grail of becoming the first man to smash the 300 mph barrier. On 3rd September 1935 he achieved this incredible speed posting 301.129 mph, it was his ninth and final Land Speed Record, and at the age of 50 he retired from pursuing the LSR. He devoted himself to chasing the Water Speed Record and was still doing so at 63 in 1948, the year that he died. Bluebird can be found in the Daytona International Speedway Museum, when not on loan to the likes of the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
1935 might have seen the end of record breaking on Daytona Beach, but perhaps more significantly it marked the year that Bill France Sr. moved his family from Washington DC to Daytona. The city council were determined to maintain the income stream for the hotels and restaurants that the LSR and other automotive activities had brought to the city. So, with a local promoter, Sig Haugdahl, they decided to organise a series of races on the beach with cash prizes. While financially unsuccessful, the stock car races caught on with the public. Bill France was a top driver in these contests and gradually moved on to the role of promoter.
After World War Two, France got together with other interested parties to form the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing or NASCAR as it is generally known.
The races and other automotive events were still run on the beach - with a road connecting the North and South turns, down at the Ponce Inlet end of the Halifax River.
The races were popular with visitors of all ages. However the coasts' development with hotels and resorts, a reflection of the general prosperity of the Americans in the 50s, meant that a new venue would have to be found.
Bill France was up to the task of finding a new solution and in 1953 drew up plans for 2.5 mile superspeedway. Three years later construction was started and in 1959 the impressive new stadium was opened. It was, and remains, one of the great temples of speed and its opening propelled NASCAR towards the stars.
NASCAR boomed from the 60s, turning into one of the biggest sports in America, throwing up folk heroes such as Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt along the way. Daytona Beach maintained its place as the pinnacle of the series with the 500 held as the first round of every year and then the 400 held as part of the 4th of July holiday.
It was not just NASCAR that bloomed at the superspeedway, from 1966 a 24 Hour sportscar race was held, attracting the factory Ford team. The winning Ford MK 11 of Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby takes on some fuel at night. The upshot of this is that Daytona enjoys all the fans and their money with endurance racing in January, the NASCAR Speedweeks in February and the Bike Week in March... Henry Flagler would have been proud.
The Daytona 500 is one of the biggest sporting events in America, both in terms of attendance and TV audience, here Jimmie Johnson celebrates his 2013 victory in his Chevrolet.
2014 saw the unification of sportscar racing in North America, with the first event being the 2014 Rolex 24. I will be having a closer look at this event and the prospects for the Tudor United Sportscar Championship in the coming days.
In the final analysis, it's clear that Daytona Beach is a special place for those with speed in the veins, at least one visit is a must on any bucket list. The ghosts, the history, the sea, the sun and the sand are calling...