As motorsports enthusiasts make their way to Daytona Beach this February for Speedweek, many would be surprised to learn that at the end of the Daytona peninsula is a quaint, scenic town where the first oval track automobile races took place on the beach.
What we know today as NASCAR, was born from a beach course race that ran partly parallel to the ocean in Ponce Inlet, Florida. Perhaps, the town’s most well-known feature is Florida’s Tallest Lighthouse, which in the days of beach racing, stood as a landmark visual for motorsport competitors alike. When viewing old photographs and beach racing movies, the lighthouse is often standing tall in the background.
Beach Racing Day
For the past 15 years, the Ponce de Leon Lighthouse & Museum has hosted Beach Racing Day. This special event gathers former beach race car drivers, car owners, mechanics, and enthusiasts at the lighthouse grounds to remember and celebrate the great history of racing. Due to COVID-19 safety precautions, 2021 Beach Racing Day has been cancelled, however the museum will have a special beach racing exhibit on display for guests to view and learn more about Ponce Inlet’s critical role in the sport. Check out this blog for more information about what there is to see and do for race fans in Ponce Inlet.
As Daytona Beach prepares to host race fans for the 2021 Speedweek event, we’re taking it back to the beginning to discover where motorsport racing began and how Ponce Inlet became a part of racing history.
Racing Comes to Florida
The first automobiles to be sold to the public back in 1903 were wildly expensive for the average citizen. Cars were something only very wealthy people could afford. This was also the year racing started on the beaches of the Daytona area. Wealthy northerners would come down with their cars and stay in the Ormond Hotel to access the beaches. Racing became a fun and exclusive pastime for the rich. Motorcycle races also began taking place on the beach at this time.
In March of 1903, the first automobile racing event on the beach was a timed trial held in Ormond on a straightaway mile course featuring Alexander Winton driving his Bullet #1, one of the foremost racing cars of its time. [Excerpt from: THE PONCE INLET LIGHTHOUSE: An Illustrated History By Ellen J. Henry]
About ten years later, Henry Ford introduced the long assembly line which allowed cars to become affordable for the middle class. This is when the sport of racing really took off in the Daytona Beach area.
Why the Beach?
The beaches of the Ormond-Daytona area were chosen as an ideal racing location due to the nature of the beaches themselves. At the time, the beach was extremely wide, long and flat—perfect conditions for reaching high speeds in an automobile. The area’s beach sand was made up mostly of quartz which made an ideal hard-packed surface for fast spinning tires.
From 1903 to 1910, the most famous competitors in the world attended the annual winter race meets held there. An article in the February 5, 1903, issue of Motor Age magazine stated, “The beach is probably the finest in the world….It is an ideal race course and a place where world records will be made in the future. [Excerpt from: THE PONCE INLET LIGHTHOUSE: An Illustrated History By Ellen J. Henry]
Tickets to see the beach races were sold and tens of thousands of spectators came to Florida to witness the impressive speed. Oftentimes, viewers would try to avoid paying admission by climbing the atop the dunes to view the race for free. Promoters of the races would even put signs up warning of rattlesnakes in the dunes to deter visitors looking for a free way in.
The Beginnings of NASCAR at Mosquito Inlet
In 1936, oval track racing came to Ponce Inlet, formally known as Mosquito Inlet. The first race held on an oval track was half on the white sand beaches of Ponce and half on the pavement of modern day South Atlantic Avenue. With a north and south turn, this course made for an exciting race.
Due to World War II, racing on the Mosquito Inlet track was suspended until 1947, around the time stockcar racing was born. Bill France, Sr. was beginning to promote races in the area and when he saw great success, more beach races took place. This oval-shaped track taken on by stockcars was the beginnings of NASCAR as we know it today.
In December of 1947, Bill France Sr. organized a meeting to discuss the future of stockcar racing at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach. Out of this meeting, the National Association for Stockcar Racing was born.
Within the next year, new oval beach/road courses were formed in Mosquito Inlet and for the next 10 years, many races were held here. In the summer of 1958, construction was started on the high-banked, 2.5 mile Daytona International Speedway. In February of the next year, the first Daytona 500 was run.
Meanwhile at the Lighthouse…
There are no records from John Lindquist (Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse keeper 1905-1924) or his assistants concerning their interest in the races, but the Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse would continue to be involved in the quest for speed on both land and air, serving as a landmark for automobile and motorcycle races as well as for air races. [Excerpt from: THE PONCE INLET LIGHTHOUSE: An Illustrated History By Ellen J. Henry]
The popularity of beach races at the inlet did bring an influx of new visitors to the area who marveled at the impressive lighthouse beacon. These visitors would often come to the lighthouse and keepers would find time in their busy schedule to show them around the light station.
It’s reported that while Charner Smith was lighthouse keeper in the 1940s, his son, Robert, would watch races from the top of the tower much like you can view the location of the old course from the tower today. Whether you’re a resident of Volusia County or you’re in town for Speedweek, making the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse part of your plans will provide you with a unique side of racing history.
To plan your visit to our light station, visit /visit/index and for more information regarding COVID-19 safety measures, visit /Ponce-Inlet-Lighthouse-COVID-19-Safety-Information-1-6961.html.
Abernethy, Kellie. “100 Mph on the Beach? Ponce Inlet's Beach Racing History.” Daytona Beach News-Journal Online, Daytona Beach News-Journal Online, 10 Apr. 2018, www.news-journalonline.com/special/20180410/100-mph-on-beach-ponce-inlets-beach-racing-history.
Brotemarkle, Ben. “Florida Frontiers ‘Racing on the Beach.’” Florida Historical Society, 17 Feb. 2019, myfloridahistory.org/frontiers/article/131.
“NASCAR History.” Official Site Of NASCAR, 21 July 2019, www.nascar.com/nascar-history.
“Racing on the Beach.” THE PONCE INLET LIGHTHOUSE: An Illustrated History, by Ellen J Henry, Ponce De Leon Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Association, 2017, pp. 108–109.