Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Racing through layers of history

Man in Stanley Steamer race car on beach  in 1906, surrounded by fans
Halifax Historical Society photo used in the book 'Daytona
Beach: 100 Years of Racing' depicts the Stanley Steamer
car driven to a world record in 1906.
We’re nigh on to Speed Weeks: the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona just roared through the region the last weekend of January. It reminded me I’ve been remiss. I've never blogged about the early days of automobile racing in Daytona Beach and Ormond Beach on Florida's East Coast. 

That's partly because pictures of old racing cars all look alike to me. But it's mainly because I’m more drawn to the social history that surrounded the races than to things like engine specifications and speed records.

There's a lot of recorded history about the nuts and bolts, no pun intended. But precious little about the peripheral activities that occurred among the people involved. I got enthused at the 1906 photo posted here because of the names mentioned, but my euphoria was short lived. The man in the driver’s seat is Fred Marriott, a name known to me for its hotel connotation. But I found no connection between him and the hotel family. He’s seated in a "#2" Stanley Steamer. I thought immediately of carpets. Unfortunately, the Stanley Steamer car has absolutely nothing to do with the Stanley Steemer carpet cleaning company.

So, even in my social history blog I have to resort to nuts and bolts on this subject. The photo is from the Halifax Historical Society and is pictured on page 17 of Daytona Beach: 100 Years of Racing by Harold D. Cardwell Sr. (Arcadia Publishing, 2002). The photo depicts a momentous event that has nothing to do with floor coverings or hotels. The caption notes that Marriott had broken a world record of 127.66 mph in the Stanley Steamer in 1906. 

That’s fast even by 21st century standards. It’s no wonder such speeds awed inquisitive spectators at a time when many people still called cars “horseless carriages.”

Automobile racing was an expensive hobby from the start, and the speed trials and beach races drew the era’s glitterati as both participants and spectators. Listen to the surnames of some of the racers, car owners, and spectators, sometimes one and the same: Vanderbilt, Flagler, Gould, Astor. They were the one percent of their time. Several helped found the Florida East Coast Automobile Association at the start of the 20th century, and built an oceanfront clubhouse. 

Tourist lodgings such as the massive Ormond Hotel -  demolished in 1992 - catered to the racers and car owners. They also hosted the fans who came to see them. I sometimes wonder if wives and families went along on these racing jaunts. Then, as now, winter weather in Florida was hard to resist. Most of the historic racing-related photos picture predominantly male crowds. The ladies may not have been interested. There were plenty of other things to occupy them. If only old photos could talk.




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