Daytona’s Paradigm Shift

Story by Ron Keys// Photos by Ron Keys
May 17 2010

Although Daytona Beach has been synonymous with racing since 1902, my first Daytona experience came in the early seventies when it was known simply as the Daytona 200, a 200-mile race around the steeply banked asphalt oval track. As I think back to the seventies, that magical golden era, great names come to mind such as Yvon Duhamel, Kenny Roberts, Cal Rayburn, Gary Nixon, Mark Brelsford, Barry Sheene and the great Mike Hailwood. Of course, other events complemented the 200, such as the Alligator Enduro, flat-track races, speedway, and later, supercross, but the focus of Daytona in early March has always been the 200-mile race, whether on the beach or on the banked oval.

In 2001, while driving to Daytona and back again, I travelled with the legendary Don McHugh, who actually raced on the beach track before the asphalt track was completed. Don was American National Number 6 at one time, and for mile upon mile, I listened with rapt attention as he captivated me with stories of his racing experiences back in the day. Unfortunately, we lost Don the following summer along with many untold anecdotes, but his memory lives on in the Canadian Motorcycle Hall of Fame (2009 inductee).

After a twenty-five-year hiatus from motorcycling, I found that Daytona has undergone a paradigm shift. Yes, it is still the first big premier event of the year on the AMA racing calendar, but during my absence, something even more significant than the enormous technological advances on the racing bikes has taken place. Daytona’s population of about 64,422 now burgeons to hundreds of thousands of people during what is now referred to as Bike Week.

A small nucleus of hard-core racing buffs still comes to Daytona exclusively for the races, but now the larger share of the focus is on the other events. Events like the velodrome, pub crawling, coleslaw wrestling, and let’s not forget posing on Main Street, have taken centre stage. Streaking, a popular risque sport in the seventies, has given way to the baring of the ladies’ normally covered physiological parts right on the Main Street, but how could one complain? And it certainly adds a new flavour to the old 200 we once knew. Bikers come from all over North America and the world to celebrate Bike Week, and never attend a race, never even know when or where they will take place.

My trek to Daytona this year was by air, and as I arrived at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, I found it buried in six inches of new-fallen snow, making my exodus even more satisfying. A long flight connection in Atlanta allowed me to catch lunch and the last two periods of the Canada/USA Olympic hockey game, a story with a great ending. I arrived in Daytona at 9 p.m. As I exited the terminal, I could already hear in the distance the rolling thunder that has become synonymous with Bike Week: noise.

While heading south in my rental car, I rolled down the windows and the salty ocean breeze was a pleasure to my senses. Mike Lilly, who used to be Yvon Duhamel’s mechanic way back in Yvon’s flat tracking days, always has a place for his friends to rest their heads while at Daytona. His home in New Smyrna Beach, complete with several bedrooms and a loft with Yvon’s name on it, awaits many Canadian friends arriving at Daytona on their annual March migration. But what was that horrendous noise approaching from behind as I cruised along Route 1? I was suddenly swarmed by a half-dozen homemade choppers without any form of muffling device on them. They rambled along randomly, flowing from lane to lane at will, with no indication of their intentions. Oversize tires, a plethora of LED lights, handlebars with unreachable grips, and severely raked front forks made me wonder how one manages to ride these beautiful works of rolling mechanical art, where artistic flair supersedes engineering. I watched from behind as they meandered along and just hoped that they each made it to their respective destinations safely. I pulled into Mike’s driveway just after 10:00 p.m. to find the place in darkness and surrounded by trailers, trucks and a garage full of bikes with Canadian plates. I tapped lightly on the door, Mike arrived to show me to my bed, and I was soon asleep.

Next morning at breakfast I met everyone, some I knew and some I didn’t, but we were all biking brothers with Canada as our common bond. A loosely knit plan for the day included going to the original beach racetrack, and not wanting to waste any time, we were soon on our way. Since as early as 1902, Daytona was labelled the world’s most famous beach because of its unique hard-packed sand and subsequent motorized speed events. Over the years, several land-speed records were set on the beach, and in 1937 Daytona became the first major circuit race of the year for American and Canadian motorcyclists. The race was held for decades on the beach. However, in 1960, Daytona’s steeply banked car racing track was completed. In 1961, history gave way to progress and the speedway’s asphalt ring was adopted as the motorcycle racing venue; Daytona’s legendary beach racing was relegated to the annals of history.

We arrived at the North Turn Beach Bar and Grille, apropos because of its unique location on South Atlantic Avenue in Ponce Inlet. The original beach racetrack, which was used from 1937 to 1947, was 3.2 miles in length. Because of development along the beach, the track was moved south toward Ponce Inlet in 1948 and was enlarged to approximately 4.1 miles.

Although finding the old track is difficult due to the constantly shifting sands and the commercialization of the coastal area, evidence of it can still be found. The North Turn Beach Bar and Grille is exactly where the racers made their left turn from the beach, through a cutaway in the dunes at the north end of the track, and onto South Atlantic Avenue to head south again on the asphalt roadway. The North Turn Beach Bar and Grille is filled with memorabilia and photos of the great legends of racing from yesteryear. Under sepia photos, we read the captions with admiration and viewed mementos of bygone days. As we walked down through the actual north turn, which is now an entrance to the beach, I quietly placed myself here decades ago and could almost hear the roar of approaching Indians, Harleys and Nortons. I closed my eyes and a chill ran up my back as I envisioned myself on this spot in 1952. Dick Klamforth was ahead of a field of fifty riders as he slid sideways on his Norton in a great rooster tail of sand, trying to get to South Atlantic Avenue in first place. At South Atlantic Avenue and Beach Street the racers would turn left again, as they rounded the bend onto the hard beach sand and raced north again along the beach. This alone made my trip to Daytona worthwhile – but there’s more.

Mike was my tour guide, and our next stop was Oceanside Park at the Hilton Oceanside Hotel, nine miles north of the old beach track on South Atlantic Avenue. We walked through the magnificent hotel to the Oceanside walkway, and there stood the Daytona 200 monument, dedicated to all the racing heroes of Daytona’s famous storied past. I was in awe as I slowly walked around, reading all the great names from bygone days, many of whom are still with us, along with some who are my friends and acquaintances from the past. You can pay $50 and have your name engraved on a brick and placed in the patio that surrounds the monument, or for several dollars more, have a plaque engraved and placed in the surrounding wall. Although he was not in attendance at the time, the legendary Dick Klamforth, who won the race on the beach in 1949, 1951 and 1952, manages the monument and is usually there during Bike Week to take orders for plaque and brick engraving.

As I looked south, I saw the Coquina Clock Tower casting its tall proud shadow on the lawn. Made of stone and standing 30 feet high, it is located in Oceanfront Park just south of the Daytona 200 monument and has stood there as a monument to the “World’s Most Famous Beach” since 1936. Its four one-of-a-kind clock dials, which are actually transparent, feature the twelve letters of the city D-A-Y-T-O-N-A-B-E-A-C-H instead of the traditional one through twelve in Roman numerals. A plaque, mounted on a large stone in front of the fountain and under the clock tower, recognizes Sir Malcolm Campbell’s world speed record of 276.82 miles per hour, set in 1935 on Daytona Beach.

A visit to Bike Week is not complete without a walk down Main Street. Bikes are parked everywhere and the street is lined with bars, shops and sidewalk vendors hawking everything that you buy on impulse and then realize you don’t need once you get home. A woman with a large snake around her shoulders, another dressed only in discretionary stripes placed on her body to barely (forgive the pun) meet local ordinances, and tattooed bikers everywhere: this is now what Daytona is all about during the first week of March. It’s an incredible change from my first Daytona experience in the early 70’s, but it’s promoted heavily by the Chamber of Commerce, as noted by the unrestricted exhaust pipes and the lack of any municipal laws forbidding it. It’s only for one week and the millions of dollars it brings to Daytona cause local politicians to turn a blind eye.

A visit to Bruce Rossmeyer’s Harley-Davidson took everyone out for another afternoon, and we found that this was as advertised – the world’s largest motorcycle dealer, and with vendors everywhere, it resembles downtown Daytona. The main building houses the state-of-the-art dealership. An abundance of bikes and special custom bikes are randomly located in the antiseptic hospital-like surroundings, with various locations set up to take care of customer financing and purchases privately. It’s easy to see why Harley-Davidson is a marketing icon in America. At the entry, two lovely models greeted us and I told the young ladies that if they didn’t mind having their pictures taken, they might be in Motorcycle Mojo Magazine. They scrambled to line up for the photo shoot. Everywhere is a level of polished professionalism that is seldom in evidence at shops of other brands. Next door is J.P. Cycles, a motorcycle mechanics school, and even apartments for rent or lease. I am not a Harley-Davidson owner, but still, I was greatly impressed.

Wednesday evening took us to Gene’s Steak House, which is not far from the Speedway, for an “all-Canadian gathering” of friends over a nice juicy T-bone steak and a baked potato. It was an “invitation only” group hosted by Pat Gonsalves, who is not only well-known to Q107 listeners in Toronto but also is the voice of the Daytona 200, the voice of Mosport, and the moderator at the annual Canadian Motorcycle Hall of Fame Banquet. It was an evening of conversation and renewed friendships with racers and old friends I hadn’t seen for decades. We closed the place down before finally leaving for our respective accommodations.

Race day came, or perhaps I should say race night. For the second year in a row, the unheard of was taking place: the 200-mile feature ran after dark under the lights. Because the temperature was in the fifties and falling, we decided to watch the race live on TV in the comfort of Mike’s living room. This proved to be a good decision, as it was the coldest Bike Week since 1951. I didn’t recognize a single rider in the main event. All the manufacturers have withdrawn from American racing for 2010 and the top riders were not in attendance. Although the racing was quite good, without the top names I felt like I was watching a novice race. Almost half the field of entrants crashed by the time the race was over, and I was happy with my decision to stay at Mike’s and watch it on TV.

The motocross ran the next day during daylight hours, and the attendance proved its popularity. The grandstand was almost full and the standing-only area on the asphalt track was also full. All the sponsors were actively in attendance and the racing was superb, in spite of the fact that Chad Reed and James “Bubba” Stewart were both still on the injured list and not racing that day. Reed and “Bubba,” the front-runners until they were both injured, should be back again within a few weeks. If attendance is the deciding factor, then maybe Daytona has come full circle. What was Daytona’s feature event decades ago on the smooth sandy beach and South Atlantic Avenue’s pavement was replaced by the speedway. Now, if attendance is any indicator, the event has morphed into another type of feature race on the bumps and jumps of the sandy motocross course.


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