The city of Daytona, Florida has gone down in history as the world capital of speed. Motor racing has been taking place on its beach since 1903 and many world land speed records have been broken there, the most significant culminating at 276 mph (445 km/h) in 1935. Today, Daytona is considered in the United States to be the “world centre of automobile racing”. From its headquarters in Daytona, the International Speedway Corporation oversees 13 American race tracks including the legendary Daytona International Speedway, which was at its origin. Daytona also hosts the governing bodies of NASCAR and GRAND-AM.
The kings of speed
From 1903 to 1935, the hard-packed sand beach in Daytona, Florida became famous worldwide as the perfect place to beat speed records. No fewer than 80 official records were set there, 14 of which were for the fastest speed in the world. A sign at the location of the measured mile – a mile marked on the sand that served as a gauge to calculate the speed of the racers – listed, at the time, several of the most famous feats. They included those of W. K. Vanderbilt in 1904, who at 92 mph (148 km/h) set the first world record in Daytona, and Barney Oldfield and his Lightning Benz, who was anointed the king of speed in 1910 at 131 mph (210 km/h). After setting his record, Oldfield declared his speed to be “as near to the absolute limit of speed as humanity will ever travel”.
Ralph DePalma, one of the greatest race drivers of his time, set a new world record at the wheel of his powerful 12-cylinder Packard in 1919 at 149 mph (240 km/h) – a record that would stand unbeaten for more than 10 years. Then came the era of the two most formidable rivals in the history of the conquest of speed: Malcolm Campbell and Henry Segrave. These two wealthy Englishmen, who would later both be knighted by King George V for their speed records, began to compete against each other in the 1920s on the Brooklands race track in England, opened in 1907 as the first purpose-built racing circuit in the world. When their ever more powerful cars became too fast for the concrete oval at Brooklands, they turned to the beaches, first at Pendine Sands and Southport in England, then, inevitably, at Daytona. Each one built in secret a vehicle capable of exceeding 200 mph (321 km/h), a speed reached only by aeroplanes at the time. Their cars, constructed for races in a straight line on the beach, were equipped with aircraft engines. Segrave won the first Daytona encounter in 1927 driving his Sunbeam Mystery S, reaching 203 mph (328 km/h). This was the first record certified according to international standards, by calculating the average speed of two runs in opposite directions on a measured mile in order to compensate for the wind effect. Campbell raised the bar the following year with Bluebird – the name he gave to all his cars – at 207 mph (333 km/h). In 1929 Henry Segrave took the lead again at 231 mph (372 km/h) with his new race car Golden Arrow, a world record that earned him his knighthood and a place on the front page of the New York Times. Tragically, he died a year later in an accident while trying to break the record for speed on water. Campbell then became the uncontested king of speed, beating year after year his own world records in Daytona with ever more powerful versions of Bluebird. His exploits attracted thousands of people, as well as the press from all over the planet, to Daytona Beach. In March 1935, aiming for 300 mph (482 km/h), he hit 330 mph (531 km/h) on his first pass – the highest speed ever reached in Daytona – but problems on the run in the opposite direction reduced the average speed of his official record to 276 mph (445 km/h).
This was the last record set on the beach in Daytona. Campbell’s disappointment prompted him to test a new site, the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. In September of the same year, he succeeded in meeting the challenge and set his ultimate official record at 301 mph (483 km/h). Since 1930, Campbell had been wearing a Rolex OYSTER, the watch on his wrist during the exploit. He attested to its exceptional resistance to shocks and vibrations – without ever accepting any remuneration from Rolex, as mentioned in the advertisements of the time. Thus, the first Rolex Testimonee in motor sport was already closely tied to Daytona.
“Daytona Beach, Florida is the only place I know where it is possible to make world land speed records. The sand packs almost as hard as cement, and there is sufficient length to get up speed.”
Sir Malcolm Campbell, world land speed record breaker, May 1932.