There was a time when Daytona Beach, Florida meant automotive speed without apology. Henry Ford came down to try out some of his earliest contraptions on the wide, flat sands at the Atlantic's edge, and many of the great land-speed-record cars of the past left the gulls palpitating in their wakes.
For the last nine years now, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing has put on a speed carnival at Daytona in February. This has come to include top speed and acceleration runs on the sands for nearly every breed of automobile, but particularly Detroit passenger cars, and a three-day stock car racing carnival on one of the nation's most picturesque tracks.
This February Daytona was unnaturally calm. There was speed, all right, and at the beach itself things looked very much as usual—highly tuned cars streaking along beside the surf, racing stock cars growling un-muffled exhaust noise on the 4.1-mile beach and road course.
But Daytona was otherwise quiet, partly because the cold Yankee air that blew in daily from the northwest kept midday temperatures in the 40s; mostly because the automotive giants of Detroit have decided, at least for public consumption, that the words racing and speed are unwise at the moment.
Last June the Detroit automobile manufacturers agreed to withdraw indefinitely from speed trials and racing. They were tired of persistent congressional questioning on the matter of high horsepower in American cars and fearful that a legislative ceiling on horsepower might be imposed. Speed sold cars, but it also provided controversy. So Detroit soft-pedaled speed.
Consequently, Detroit, which sent platoons of engineers, admen and publicity men to Daytona in 1956 and 1957, kept them home this year. There were only three big-company men in the vicinity of the beach trials, as far as this observer could tell, and of these two were on vacation and one was on hand to watch the safe-driving tests.
How startling the change from a year ago, when all the area's 35,000 hotel and motel rooms were taken; when Pete DePaolo's Ford team housed an incredible supply of spare engines and tires on the mainland; when Bill Stroppe had his spit-and-polish Mercury operation running at full throttle; when Smokey ("Best Damn Garage in Town") Yunick toiled into the night behind barbed-wire security fencing to tune his beach and race cars for Chevrolet; when the Indianapolis "500" whiz kid, Jack Zink, brought his fast Pontiacs to town; when there was a jammed party after every day's events.
However, neither this year's austerity nor its sanitary publicity converted the trial cars to perambulators or the drivers to finger painting or stayed a leadfoot pastor (a member of Daytona's Century Club for drivers who have been clocked at better than 100 mph on the beach) from offering up thanks for "competition and sport" at a NASCAR function.
NASCAR was now using the high-falutin title International Safety and Performance Trials where once Speed Weeks was considered both accurate and sufficiently catchy; and the organization had dreamed up a new and sanitary name to fit its initials—one that Detroit could use in connection with nonracing trials under its auspices. National Association for Stock Car Advancement and Research is the new monicker, and there was a new series of non-racing tests keyed to problems of city and highway driving to make the name more appropriate. Finally, the pace car for the 1958 Speed Weeks was a Jaguar 3.4 sedan, emphasizing Detroit's nonparticipation.
It is reasonable to assume, nonetheless, that the factories concerned were not especially displeased that Chevrolet, Plymouth, Pontiac and Rambler won on the beach, or that Chevrolet received for the second consecutive year the Pure Oil Trophy for the best all-round performance.
And you should have seen all the advancement in the stock car races last weekend. First Edwin (Banjo) Matthews of Asheville, N.C. buzzed his 1955 Ford with its 1958 Lincoln engine around the beach-road course at an average speed of 97.381 mph to win the 125-mile race for sportsman and modified cars—those ugly jalopies with the beautiful engines. Then Curtis Turner of Roanoke, Va. won the 160-mile race for convertibles in a 1958 Ford at 98.56 mph. And, finally, Paul Goldsmith of St. Clair Shores, Mich. won the main event, the 160-mile race for late-model closed cars, in a 1958 Pontiac at 101.18 mph.
The stock cars will be racing all year long, but it is the first appearance of the new Detroit cars in open competition on the beach that gives Daytona its special importance. Not all makes compete, and these are certainly not scientifically true tests; vagaries of wind and sand conditions, differences in driving ability and varying levels of expertness in tuning make that impossible. Yet there is something about Chevrolets and Fords and Plymouths and the others fighting it out on the sands that makes a stirring spectacle. For some of the factory men it had occasionally been so stirring in the past that they started using tranquilizers.
The weather was marvelously clear for the trials last week, if cold for Daytona, and the beach drivers were doing all right. The best of them approached, and three of them broke, records set in last year's mass assault. By and large the entrants were dealers or hard-core enthusiasts or a team with both elements. Take Dr. Ludson Delroy Morris, a general practitioner out of Mr. Carmel, Ill. Dr. Morris, who admits that nobody in Wabash County has a faster car than he if he can help it, drove a black-and-yellow 1958 Pontiac Chieftain on Tuesday as if racing the stork. He averaged 144.346 mph downwind and 131.627 returning north against the wind for a two-way average of 137.693. He thus became the fastest man on the beach in the official passenger car trials. His Pontiac, whose 370-cubic-inch engine was equipped with three two-barrel carburetors, was sponsored by Robison Pontiac of Princeton, Ind. and tuned by Mechanic Eddie Oldert.
"I started racing at 12," said Dr. Morris, pushing a Stetson back from his forehead, "and never got it out of my blood. My dad was a doctor, and he had a 1920 Overland that could go pretty fast. My opponent in my first race was 15. He had his dad's Model T. Everybody in town—that was Fort Branch, Ind.—was betting on us. Everybody but our parents, that is. They didn't know about it. The course was a half-mile stretch of road between the town and the old iron bridge over Pigeon Creek. We were even coming up to the bridge, and I won because I didn't shut off. You see, there was only room for one car on the bridge.
"I drove stock cars in the late '20s down at Evansville until my father said: 'You'll have to decide if you want to be a race driver or a doctor.' Well, I became a doctor, but my hobby has always been to have the fastest car I could get under my behind. I sponsored cars at Indianapolis from 1950 to 1955, and I started drag racing after that—in the super stock class."
Other Pontiacs swept the second through sixth places in the Class Seven competition for cars of more than 350-cubic-inch piston displacement. Chevrolets easily dominated Classes Five and Six. The Ramblers of the Reed Brothers, Robert and John, who are Rambler dealers in Orlando, Fla., won Classes Four and Three, respectively.
It was Chevrolet again in the Big Three class for Ford, Plymouth and Chevy cars with no optional high-performance equipment and rigged with automatic transmission and one four-barrel carburetor. Buzzy McCammon of Dugger, Ind. was first with a 116.599-mph average.
Chrysler broke through in the one-mile acceleration trials from a standing start, but it was a close call for Brewster Shaw, a Daytona Chrysler dealer, over the Pontiac trials veteran, Jim Stonebraker, of Fairview Park, Ohio. In Chrysler's hottest model, a 1958 300-D, Shaw made the one-way northbound run at an average speed of 87.485 mph, to 87.357 for Stonebraker. Both broke Shaw's 1957 record of 86.873 mph achieved with a Chrysler 300-C.
A Plymouth driven by Bill Frick of Baldwin, N.Y. squeezed ahead of the Chevrolet parade in Class Six, with a near-record average of 85.227, but Chevy swept Class Five. The leader, driven by Walter Bridges of Miami, set a new record of 86.435 mph. The Brothers Reed were unopposed as they took their Ramblers to Class Three and Four victories.
If all that isn't proof that speed is not on the bum in Daytona, consider what Big Bill France, president of NASCAR, has up his sleeve.
This was the last year for racing on the beach-road course. It will be supplanted—in time for the 1959 Speed Weeks if all goes well—by one of the most ambitiously conceived racing plans ever blueprinted, and one of the fastest, with a projected average lap speed for stock cars of 125 mph.
France heads a group that has already gotten clearing and grading under way on a 440-acre site west of Daytona, near the city's airport, for what will be known as the Daytona International Speedway. Much of the financing has already been obtained; the rest will be sought in a public issue of stock at $1 a share.
Roughly of triangular shape, the 2½-mile asphalt track will have two high-speed 1,000-foot-radius turns banked at 30° and a third turn banked at 18°. A road course of two miles will be built in the infield for sports car racing. Thus, one complete lap for road racing would include a tour of the road course and one circuit on the speed track.
France, who has a way of getting what he goes after, is going after a 250-mile July 4 race for Indianapolis cars and a winter race of international caliber for sports cars, besides a big stock car program. The traditional Speed Weeks straightaway trials will continue on the beach. Whether Detroit will officially return is conjectural, but we may be sure that Doc Morris and other blithe spirits will turn up again, all busting down the beach for the glory of places like Pigeon Creek.
DAYTONA IMPRESARIO Bill France (left) congratulates winning driver, Dr. L. D. Morris, standing by his Pontiac. The Illinois physician competes for the fun of it.
TAKING THE FLAG at the start of a flying mile run, Doctor Morris peers through his windshield at the endless stretch of sand and surf with only a fringe of dunes.