One hundred years ago one of the strangest events in racing history took place on our beach.
Driver Tommy Milton was then at the top of his game and came here with a powerful twin-engine Dusenberg to try for the coveted world land speed record. His chief rival, Ralph DePalma, had raised the record to 149 m.p.h. the previous year and now it was Milton's turn to run the sands.
He had worked on the car for a solid year and arrived confident the world mark would soon be his. To guarantee his success Tommy had arrived in Daytona Beach with a large crew. Before his attempt, he had one last commitment to run a road race in Havana. He gave implicit instructions on how to prepare the car and left for his three day trip to Cuba.
Upon his return, he was outraged to discover Jimmy Murphy, one of his mechanics, had raced the car on the beach and had already set the new world record. Milton quickly fired Murphy and did manage to set his own record at 156 m.p.h., but the member of his crew had already established his own fame.
Murphy used that fame to get a ride in the eighth annual 500 mile International Sweepstakes Race at Indianapolis. Tommy Milton was also entered in that race and was probably not happy his former mechanic was to be his competition.
On Monday, May 31, the field rolled off behind the big Marmon pace car that was piloted by the inimitable Barney Oldfield. From the beginning it was clear DePalma and his Packard were the class of the field, but on lap 187 of the 200 lap race DePalma's car failed. He sent his ride-along mechanic to the pits for a can of gas, but by the time the man returned, Ralph had the car running.
During that delay DePalma was passed by Gaston Chevrolet (one of the two Chevrolet brothers in the race.) Then, on lap 197, Gaston's car ran out of fuel, but somehow managed to coast to the checkers and the win.
Milton and Murphy ran neck and neck to the finish line where Milton managed to finish third leaving Murphy at fourth. Not a win, but probably a satisfying finish for Tommy. On lap 97, Louis Chevrolet had dropped out due to a steering problem, but soon after would go on to lend his name to a new automobile coming out of Detroit.
Sadly Gaston would die during the last race of the season at Beverly Hills, Calif., (Not many race tracks there these days.)
Tommy Milton would go on to win the Indy 500 the next year to put him atop the racing world. Murphy would win Indy in 1922, but perished at age 30 in a race at Syracuse, N.Y., in 1924.
The land speed record attempts on our beach ran from 1903 to 1935. Along the way, the action created many bizarre and interesting stories. None was more strange than when the bold Jimmy Murphy managed to convince the officials at Daytona Beach that he was supposed to drive his boss' car.
During that run the big Dusenberg sustained some damage and had to be repaired before the rightful owner could make his try. Tommy Milton would eventually forgive Murphy, but they could never be friends. There is little doubt that had Milton not been able to set the record, Jimmy Murphy would not have even made it to Indianapolis or to Syracuse.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call (386) 441-7793.