Daytona Beach, is, “The land of misfit toys. If you don’t fit in anywhere else in the world, you end up in Daytona.” Being born there may indicate a predisposition to being a misfit toy, and if so, I’m guilty. Growing up in Daytona, “the world’s most famous beach” is a strange experience. I’ve spent all but 14 of my 51 years on this Earth, living in Daytona. The years between age 7 and 21, are when my family moved around a lot. Later, when I was old enough, the misfit toy in me headed back to home ground.
The Timucuan Indians had inhabited the area in the early 1800’s, but had been decimated by disease and wars. The second Seminole war between 1835 and 1842, removed the remaining indians of the Seminole tribe. After the Civil War ended in 1865, Florida became a popular tourist destination. Daytona Beach was officially founded in 1870 and incorporated in 1876. The town was named for its founder, Mathias Day. What made it famous was the unique composition of the sand on the beach. It was solid enough that a normal car could drive on it, where most beaches in the world require special four wheel drive vehicles.
This combination of car and beach led to the first recorded, “my car can beat your car” race around 1902 between H.T. Thomas and Alexander Winton. The owner of the winning car was Ransom Olds. Hmmm, that last name sounds familiar. Yes, it was the founder of Oldsmobile. Nascar was created in 1947, but there had been oval track racing down on the beach since 1936. It was the tides of the ocean that drove racing from the beachside, and Daytona International Speedway was finished and the first race run in 1959. although the track has a seating capacity of 168,000 excluding the infield, there are usually about 250,000 to 300,000 people who descend on Daytona for the Nascar races.
I don’t know if it was my own memory, or just the 8mm films my father showed me, but I do remember the races down on the beach. The automobile racers were the first of the “great invaders.” The next to follow were the motorcycle racers in 1937. The city father’s didn’t catch on until 1941 to start having “official bike weeks” every year to draw more tourists. The third horde of people to decend on Daytona were the “Spring Breakers.” A 1960 movie called “Where the Boys Are” portrayed young men and women partying in Ft. Lauderdale. After the city fathers of Ft. Lauderdale started discouraging the event there, Daytona Beach became the Florida coast mecca of Spring Break. The latest throng to swell the limits of Daytona are the participants of Black College Reunion in 1884.
The 2004 census of Daytona was 64,422 full time residents of this lovely seaside resort. Think of a town that had its roads, traffic lights, businesses and police department proportionate to a city that size. Now think about the approximate chaos created by a quarter million people for race week, up to a half million people for bike week, two hundred thousand spring breakers, and a meager hundred thousand participants of Black College Reunion. I think chaos is too weak a word to describe what happens, but I can’t think of a word that really captures the experience. All told, about eight million people visit Daytona every year.
With all groups but the Nascar bunch, the amount of “tit flashing” going on could be second only to New Orleans at Mardi Gras. But in Daytona you don’t even need the beads as an incentive. Even though “flashing your tits” is illegal, it is a yearly event. Once a sheriff told me, “We only arrest the ugly ones.” He said it jokingly, but I think there was a thread of truth to the statement. There are some very scary mammaries flashed each year. Every red blooded male amateur photographer is happily snapping away, and the professionals don’t turn down the scary bikers telling their old lady to flash the photographer. The advent of the video camera has inspired an influx of risque Steven Spielberg “wannabees.” The young women of the non-Nascar events come to Daytona with a desire to experience the madness, with as much abandon as a high school girl wanting to lose her virginity at the Senior Prom.
Although it might sound like a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah, it has its dark underbelly as well. Each year brings one or more Spring Break jumpers thinking they can hit the pool from a high floor, like in the movies. The other tragic demise is the student climbing from balcony to balcony to reach the girl, but falling to his death instead. Black College Reunion is rife with black on black violence, with many of the male participants not even being in college. They are just here to cruise the strip and pick up girls. The worst incident was in 1998, when a black man opened fire on a busy Daytona street around midnight. Four policemen and two bystanders were shot. The policemen killed the shooter, and almost triggered a race riot.
The race car crowd is a heavy drinking bunch, who take to the local streets with dreams of being the next Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt. The bumper stickers supplied by the city when I was growing up said, “If you want to race, Daytona is the place.” I think that too many aggressive drivers took that to heart, and the slogan faded away from the city’s printing presses.
Believe it or not, the bike week crowd is the best behaved of the invaders. They are more polite, tip more, and are more likely to let you into traffic. There had been a build up of outlaw bikers each year, but after the 1986 event, the towns politicians outlawed the wearing of “colors.” There is still a lot of beer drinking, revving up of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, but you’d be surprised how many doctors and lawyers are bikers. Sadly, each year at least one biker is killed. It is mostly in crashes with an automobile, where the driver didn’t see the biker.
There are two common sayings in Daytona. The first is, “Do you know what the difference is between a Yankee and a Damn Yankee?” The answer is, “A Yankee comes down here, spends his money and goes home. A damn Yankee comes down here and stays.” The other is, “When you get the Daytona sand between your toes, you can never leave.”