A Short History of Beach Racing at Daytona

At the dawn of the 20th Century, Florida’s beaches were a prime spot for top-speed runs. Daytona/Ormond beach is 23 miles long and spans over 500 feet wide at low tide, with an ideal spectator vantage provided by the bordering grass-covered dunes. A shallow taper into the sea makes the sand flat and smooth and plenty hard from retreating tides. A perfect natural race track, provided free by Neptune, rebuilt daily, with no speed restrictions.

Daytona beach in the late 1900s, before the roar of cars and motorcycles setting speed records and racing

Between 1903 and 1935, Daytona was the premier Speed Record surface in the U.S., and in 1907 Glenn Curtiss stuffed his prototype V8 airplane-engine into an elaborated bicycle frame, clocking a blistering 136.8mph in one direction – the bike disintegrating on the return run down the Ormond half of the beach. The clubhouse/timing hut used for record attempts sat just over the boundary line on the ‘other half’ of the beach (there being no physical boundary), and ‘Daytona’ became notorious – probably good, as there’s no ring to a Ferrari ‘Ormond’. By 1935, record-breakers sought even saltier terrain in Utah, but only after Malcolm Campbell had seen 330mph in his ‘Bluebird’ car, passing through a 40’ wide arch under a public pier! The limitless expanse of a dry lake looked like a safer bet at such speeds.

The Indian factory team at Daytona beach in 1909, on a record-setting expedition that proved successful. LtoR: Walter Goerke, Oscar Hedstrom (with a 1.5L Peugeot v-twin he was testing), Robert Stubbs, and AG Chappie. [from ‘The Iron Redskin’ by Harry Sucher]
While unofficial bike match-ups had scored the beach for decades, the inaugural Daytona 200-mile motorcycle race was held Janaury 24th 1937, after Volusia County lobbied hard to the Southern Motorcycle Dealer’s Association, overseers of bike racing in the South. 15,000 spectators showed up, fulfilling the promise of lucre for the City Fathers. The town set up a 3.2 Mile ‘track’, consisting of parallel 1.5 mile stretches of State Highway A1A and the beach, with sandy U-turns at either end. Like King Ozymandias, the organizers hadn’t negotiated properly with the tides, and by the end of the race, riders had a choice of adding saltwater to the already abrasive sand covering their machines, or risking the softer/drier beach closer to the dunes.

An Indian won that inaugural year, with Ed Kretz aboard a Sport Scout fishtailing sand into the goggles of his rivals, averaging 77mph. Two months later, Joe Petrali took a top speed run on his streamlined Harley Davidson, averaging 136.183mph; a harbinger of many years of Harley beach strength; they won 10 of the 19 races held on the sand, while the Indian camp tallied 3 beach wins.

Ed Kretz after winning the 1937 Daytona Beach Classis on his Indian Sport Scout [Archives of the Indian Motocycle Co.]
The SMDA wised up in 1938, and the ‘200’ began at half-tide, giving a full 6 hours of wide beach – the race lasted 3 hours, for the winners at least. Hence forth, race start times from 1937 to 1960 were determined by Mother Nature. A Harley won in ‘38, with Ben Campanale aboard. The abrasive sand took its yearly toll on machines and riders – spills and mechanical failures regularly decimated the pack. By 1940, only 15 out of 70 racers finished the full 200 miles.

Variety on the beach! The 1941 Daytona Beach Classic, with a 1940 Triumph Tiger 100 and a 1938 BMW R51RS (ridden by Joe Thomas), a Harley-Davidson WR, and a Norton International![Bonhams]
In 1941, while Europe was in flames, Billy Matthews took his Norton Model 30 to victory, the first of 5 wins for the Black and Silver, despite having valve gear exposed to a 3-hour sandblast. Harley and Indian rivals had fully enclosed valves, although theirs were popping happily beside the combustion chamber, due to quirks in the Class ‘C’ rule book, which allowed 750cc sidevalvers to compete with 500cc OHVs from Europe. A situation brilliant H-D tuners used to their advantage, bringing this humble engine configuration to its finest expression anywhere in the world with their KRTT, ultimately good for 135mph… ‘Flathead’ indeed!

The post-War threat! A pair of Norton Manx racers coating their exposed chains (and valves) with sand…

The ‘200’ was discontinued between ’42 and ’46 so racers could try their luck with guns, but the next year 176 riders indulged their pent-up Need for Speed, and Johnny Spieglehoff took the honors on his Sport Scout in front of 16,000 fans. The races became part of Bike Week, a two-wheeled invasion of Volusia County, which grew increasingly fun and ugly and crowded over the years.

A slew of Harley-Davidson KRs sliding around one of two bends in the oval track

By 1949, the British Invasion scared the pants off H-D and Indian, as a Triumph Grand Prix (ridden by Jack Horn) led most of the race, and when it broke (as they usually did), Nortons swept the board, and won the next two years to boot. Harley responded by replacing their old ‘WR’ racer with the new ‘KR’, and kicked butt in ’53. Indian responded by buying the import rights for Nortons…

The 1960 Daytona, with a BSA Daytona Gold Star pitted against a Harley-Davidson KR

Amazingly BSA became the next great threat in ’54, pulling it all together for a sweep that year, using specially-built machines based on their ‘A7’ model. Daytona had become the premier motorcycle advertising venue in the States, and every major manufacturer wanted a piece, even BMW and Moto Guzzi, who were forced by the Class ‘C’ rules to field their prosaic roadsters instead of their Works GP bikes.

The post-War Daytona races, showing clearly how perilous the track could be when facing a changing tide…

Race averages hit 95mph in the 50s, and the KR Harley became unbeatable in ’55 and for the duration of Sand Racing. American tuners extracted amazing power and reliability out of the sidevalve top-end, and used their 50% engine capacity advantage to the hilt. But Real Estate calls the shots in Florida, and development along the beautiful beaches meant motorcycles would shortly be unwelcome. Luckily Bill France had already built a giant banked track just out of town, which started a whole new era at Daytona, but sand racing was finished by 1960.

The start of the Handlebar Derby…
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