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Now browsing: Hometown News > Opinion > Volusia County

Vanderbilt: The father of American Motorsports
Rating: 1.67 / 5 (6 votes)  
Posted: 2014 Jan 24 - 06:18

As we gear up for more than three weeks of racing out at the speedway, I thought it might be a good time to take a look at one of the pioneers who helped get it all started.

The dashing young playboy William Kissem Vanderbilt Jr. is considered by most to be one of the main figures in early automobile racing. When he decided to come to Ormond's beach to run his big Mercedes in an attempt at the land speed record, it would change everything.

The first winter speed carnival on the beach had been staged in March 1903 and was less than successful. The promoter, William "Senator" Morgan, had come down from New Jersey and convinced the managers of the Hotel Ormond to sponsor an auto meet. Hastily put together, the 1903 event could only produce two actual racecars. While the sleek racers of Alexander Winton and Ransom Olds created quite a stir locally, the tournament drew only a handful of spectators from out of town. The hotel's owner, Henry Flagler, was not impressed and once the event was over, it was pretty much forgotten.

No one considered a second speed carnival until a wire arrived from William Vanderbilt. He was asking for an opportunity to try for the record on the beach in January 1904. John Anderson and Joseph Price of the hotel agreed with Morgan that this would be the boost that could insure a successful event.

Sure enough, when Willie K., as he was known, arrived at the beach, he was accompanied by a hoard of wealthy young thrill seekers. Most were the children of the new wealthy industrialists of the northeast.

Several even brought their own expensive racers to guarantee a complete field. Those young people were looking for fun and Vanderbilt was their leader. The big hotel was bursting at the seams as the party continued each night with dancing and drinking till dawn.

Finally, on Jan. 27 (110 years from Sunday), Willie K. made his run. The weather was balmy and the beach was flat and smooth. Vanderbilt roared down the sand at breakneck speed as his friends cheered him on. When he had passed through the traps, he had set a new world record at 92.3 mph in the mile. Now the party could really kick into overdrive.

Word went out on the wires that a new venue for speed had been discovered. Congratulations poured in as Flagler and Morgan made speeches on the steps of the hotel and presented Willie K. with a beautiful silver loving cup.

Immediately other cities tried to steal the action from Ormond Beach. Jacksonville made a solid offer to take over the tournament as did Daytona Beach. The hastily formed racing organization there quickly built a clubhouse right on the dunes at what is now the Silver Beach approach. On the turret high atop the building, they painted the number 39 for all to see. That was Vanderbilt's elapsed time in his record breaking run. A shameless ploy to play to the young man's ego.

Flagler countered by building the big Ormond Garage, the first facility in the world intended to house and repair racecars. That would keep Ormond Beach in the forefront for six more consecutive tournaments giving the little beachside community the name Birthplace Of Speed.

But who was this daredevil who established our beach as a racing destination? The 25-year-old grandson of the Commodore (the world's wealthiest man) was a rebel for his time. When he made the trip to Ormond, it was in defiance of his family. In the movies James Dean was a drag racing rebel and Willie K. was the Dean of his day.

The Vanderbilts wanted none of it. After his phenomenal record he was ordered to take a complete physical by the family doctor. At the time most believed the "G" force of going 90 mph would damage a body's internal organs. The physician told him he had done irreparable harm and he was ordered never to race again.

Sounds like a payoff to me, but Willie K. heeded the advice and began staging road races as a means to get his thrills. The seven races near his home on Long Island for the Vanderbilt Cup were the most prestigious in early automotive history. Eventually he would sponsor others around the country. Not only did he help cement our area's reputation as a world racing center, his friends returned north to tell the tales of beautiful beaches and warm winter weather to their wealthy parents who soon came to see for themselves.

William K. Vanderbilt Jr. is without a doubt the father of American motorsports and quite possibly of Florida tourism.

Dan Smith is on the board of directors for the Ormond Beach Historical Society and The Motor Racing Heritage Association and is the author of two books, "The World's Greatest Beach" and "I Swear the Snook Drowned." Email questions and comments to fishwdan@att.net or call (386) 441-7793.

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