William K Vanderbilt - A Day At The Beach


On January 27, 1904, at the head of a six-mile stretch of beach between Ormand and Daytona, Florida, William K. Vanderbilt stood atop his giant aluminum Mercedes, surrounded by several AAA officials and members of his entourage. Sitting beside him was W. Gould Brokaw, the Renault owner whose car had prevailed in a private challenge with Bernard Shanely over a $500 silver cup earlier in the day.[1] Brokaw sat in the seat for a riding mechanician, more than a foot lower than the perch for the driver. The 2,000 pound, four cylinder, 90 horsepower Mercedes[2] was one of the most powerful cars in the world, but its German designer had envisioned it to be a road racing machine, and by necessity, the driver sat high[3] to peer over the huge engine and radiator. Brokaw had ridden with his friend Willie K the previous day, and timed him in a measured mile at 39 seconds[4]. For the sake of speed, Willie K intended to travel the mile alone today.

The day was clear, but cool for Florida. All the men wore flannel overcoats, and many had gloves. Vanderbilt could feel a strong breeze to his back, and he smiled to think of the opportunity that lay before him.[5] An unpredictable wind could make for a harrowing experience, as the big cars would jump about enough on their own at top speed, but to be caught broadside by a gust could prove deadly. A strong head wind could make his car seem anchored to the course, but the wind to his back was worth as much as a second. A triple-A official explained that in a few moments they would start the car, and Mr. Vanderbilt would be free to accelerate to the starting tape two miles away, by which time he would be at full speed for a flying start.

At the starting tape, Referee Art Pardington explained the regulations[6] for this form of timing, even though the eight men involved were familiar with the procedures, including the newspaperman Al Reeves of The Automobile.

“Gentleman, Masseurs Thompson, Adams, Reeves, McGuinness and Leighton will time from the starting tape. At the conclusion of these instructions, I have directed Masseurs Batchelder, Smith and Hall to depart to the finish line,” Pardington said. “Before they do, however, each of you will start your watches simultaneously. It is very important that each man strike his watch in absolute synchronicity with all the others, or this very important record will be rendered invalid. Is that clear?”

The men, huddled together, all dressed in overcoats[7] as long as their pant legs, nodded and grunted in the affirmative.

“Good. Shortly after our timers are at their stations, the contestant will be instructed to start his motorcar and proceed. When he reaches the starting tape, the timers stationed at that point will stop their watches. At the instant he completes his measured mile run, the timers stationed at the finish line will stop their watches. We will record the average time among the timers at each location, then subtract the time at the starting tape from the time at the finish line and that calculation will produce a time that I will review for certification. Is that clear?”

Again, the timers confirmed their understanding.

“Very well then, gather closely to me, and with absolute concentration, study your watches and listen carefully to my instruction. At the count of three, at the instant I say three, you are to start your watch. Is that clear?”

Another nod, and more grunts.

Pardington counted off the numbers, and the men dutifully struck their timing devices. He then lumbered into a touring car with a chauffer, and starter A.J. Pickard, and they were off in the direction of Vanderbilt and his Mercedes.

When they arrived, they found Vanderbilt perched in his seat behind the wheel of his monster machine. Maurice Bernin, Mr. Brokaw’s chauffer, stood on call at the crank of the Mercedes. The conditions were perfect, but Vanderbilt was anxious about the coming tide and wanted to be done with it. He looked down the beach and saw miles of perfectly straight speedway narrowing at the tide’s tedious advance. At low tide, the width of the billiard-table smooth surface between the lapping waves on one side and the loose sand on the right was well beyond 100 feet[8]. The ocean’s onslaught had narrowed the distance to little more than half that. Willie K turned his nervous energy to his goggles, which he found capable of attracting an opaque film of salt every few minutes.

Pardington pointed to Bernin and nodded. Within three cranks, the engine made speech within the immediate area useless. Pardington and Vanderbilt didn’t need to talk. The referee turned to starter Pickard and nodded. Pickard held the red flag down at his side, preventing its unfurling with his thumb and index finger. He stared intently into Vanderbilt’s eyes, and planted his feet in the loose sand just beyond the tide limit. Within an instant, and with flourish, Pickard swirled the flag, tracing a spectacular figure eight design in the air.

Vanderbilt’s rear tires sprayed a giant rooster tail of sand to the sky, and then gripped the hard surface to sprint away. The combination of the threshing engine and the clanking, grinding chain drive was deafening.

It was nearly two minutes before the Mercedes reached the starting tape, and as it came into view, the timers tensed with their sense of responsibility. The car roared across the line, and without exception, each man captured the time. It was approaching noon, and a crowd of nearly three thousand had gathered with lunches on dunes safely distant from the course. Word had spread quickly that Willie K was on a record-breaking rampage.

Down the beach, the big German car soared, quickly disappearing from view in a cloud of sand and smoke. The cars that ran earlier seemed tame by comparison, and clearly less demanding of the racecourse. Vanderbilt pushed as forcefully as he could on the throttle, and if his hands squeezed any harder on the wheel, the polished Oak would mold to his grip. Willie K wasn’t breathing, his mouth was dry and his throat was so tense it closed. The giant car’s wheels occasionally bounced, and left unattended, would have turned in unpredictable directions.

With less than half the distance to go, the car lifted, and Vanderbilt felt an instant of helpless panic as first the front tires bounced above the sand for a fraction of a second, only to land just as the rear tires did the same. An anomaly of the current had created a “washboard” on the running surface. Vanderbilt, too, was lifted up out of his seat, and subsequently, only briefly, let up on the gas. He then punched the pedal back down, producing the slightest fishtail in his progress. He never lost his grip on the wheel. In fact, he pressed so hard his knuckles should have burst through his skin. His instinct to keep the wheel straight was the perfect reaction, whether it was produced through an emotion of terror or experience. In truth, Willie K didn’t have time to be too terrified. The car ploughed through the air at such speed he was at the brink of control and literally could not think of anything else.

When the Mercedes passed under the tape, no one could state with certainty that the record was achieved. The timing committee was to report to Referee Pardington at the Ormand Inn, where they publicly recorded the individual watch times and made their calculations of averages and subtraction[9]. Willie K had continued down the beach, screaming at the top of his lungs. His voice was lost to the steady combustion of his engine and the vastness of the Atlantic. His head took a panoramic sweep of the beach and the jungle that bordered it, and then out to the limitless horizon of ocean. He screamed again, and swerved his great racer in an arc to backtrack its own tire marks.

The Florida East Coast Automobile Association[10] closed the course for the day, judging the rising tide unsafe for continued contests.[11] The second heat of a race between two other Mercedes, both 60 horsepower cars, was postponed to the following day. That seemed irrelevant to the moment, as Willie K came back into view of the officials and spectators.

Several men ran along side him shouting congratulations, and some told him he had the new world’s record, even though there had been no official announcement. Vanderbilt came to the finish line and pulled his car to a stop, shutting down the engine. Gould Brokaw was there, and pushed his way in front of others to hop into the mechanician’s seat. He extended his right hand to shake Vanderbilt’s and gripped the millionaire’s elbow with his left, tugging at him to bring him closer.

“Bring on the professionals!” Brokaw shouted.

Over and over again, groups of men crowded around his race car and asked the same questions of how it felt to go over ninety miles an hour.

“Whatever the time is, I feel that a faster time yet is possible,” Vanderbilt said. “I swerved once to avoid a wave, but struck it and got a shower. At times I bounced some, clearing the track, I should say, about two feet high. In traveling 135 feet a second, a man does not estimate at the time how far the car leaps.[12]

A photographer had taken a several pictures at a distance, and then approached Willie K about a posed shot. At first, Vanderbilt refused any special pose, but the photographer continued to press. He was a young man, no more than 18, with cherubic-like cheeks and a boyish countenance that would be retained to some degree until the day he died decades later. Brokaw whispered something in Vanderbilt’s ear, and they laughed as they studied the boy.

“Well, I really do not want to, but I will tell you what I am willing to do,” said Willie K. “I will leave it to the toss of a coin. If it is heads, I pose; but if it is tails, I don’t.”[13]

The photographer assented to the sportsman’s proposition. Brokaw flipped the coin, and the crowd that had gathered at the scene fell quiet.

“Say cheese, Mr. Vanderbilt,” Brokaw announced with a laugh.

Vanderbilt feigned a frown, and then said, “Go ahead, then, quickly.”

Expecting that the photographer would record the picture from a distance, Vanderbilt was surprised when the young man shouted for one of the women in the crowd to loan him the blanket she had used to sit on the beach. The photographer folded it to extra thickness and draped it over the cowling of the Mercedes, much in the fashion of saddling a horse. Vanderbilt studied the boy as he, with great agility, scrambled atop his car and straddled it.

“You are quite trusting, my good man. Do you not know I could start this beast and shake you off like an insect?” Willie K challenged.

“I will have my picture and be gone from you before your chauffeur can turn the crank,” the young photographer said, catching Vanderbilt in a candid smile. As he took the picture, cheers erupted and there was applause.

As the minutes passed, the intensity of chatter among the thousands of onlookers was palpable. Clearly news was spreading. Within minutes, Pardington’s borrowed touring car appeared, and the big man extricated himself from its tight fit. The right side of the car sagged as the Referee shifted his massive weight onto a running board. Carefully, he balanced there until one his feet was planted in the sand. With a broad smile and the look of joy reserved for a reprieved man, he walked to Vanderbilt, who was now standing with Brokaw at the side of his car.

“Mr. Vanderbilt, it gives me great pleasure to officially announce that on this date, on the sands of Ormand Beach, USA, you have earned the right to call yourself the speed champion of the world.”

Pardington was interrupted by loud and spontaneous applause.

“With an official time of 39 seconds on the measured mile, as recognized by the American Automobile Association, the Automobile Club of America, and the Florida East Coast Automobile Association, I crown you, William Kissam Vanderbilt the second, the world mile speed champion and fastest man on mother Earth.”

Pardington leaned in closer to Willie K and directed his words to the young man’s ears only. “Faster than any Frenchman, or any professional, and done in a proper motorcar, not some wagon monstrosity.”

Their eyes met, and they nodded. Pardington felt at liberty to put his hand on the young millionaire’s shoulder and give it a squeeze.

By Mark G. Dill

[1] “The Automobile,” page 161, February 6, 1904, “Story of the Florida Tournament.”
[2] “Motor Age,” page 38, January 21, 1904, “Brisk Competition at Florida Tournament.”
[3] Racing on the Rim, Dick Punnett, page 22, Tomoka Press, Ormand Beach, FL, 1997.
[4] “The Automobile,” page 153, January 30, 1904, “Vanderbilt Drives a Mile in 39 Seconds.”
[5] “Motor Age,” page 3, January 28, 1904, “Reduced to 39 Seconds.”
[6] “The Automobile,” page 161, Feburary 6, 1904, “Story of the Florida Tournament.”
[7] “The Automobile,” page 160, Feburary 6, 1904, “Story of the Florida Tournament.”
[8] “The Automobile,” page 159, Feburary 6, 1904, “Story of the Florida Tournament.”
[9] “Horseless Age,” page 141, February 3, 1904, “The Florida Race Meet.”
[10] Racing on the Rim, Dick Punnett, page 22, Tomoka Press, Ormand Beach, FL, 1997.
[11] “The Automobile,” page 162, Feburary 6, 1904, “Story of the Florida Tournament.”
[12] “Horseless Age,” page 141, February 3, 1904, “The Florida Race Meet.”
[13] “The Automobile,” page 201, Feburary 13, 1904, “Personality of the World Record Holder.”