May 2, 2016
Chevy Chase, Maryland
This research about Emmett’s junior-year dorm-mates is not turning out to be some big distracting side-adventure: I’m actually going somewhere with it!
Specifically, Ormond Beach.
Check this out:
Question: Which of these guys had an automobile at that time?
Answer: None of them. DeCottes and Carter came from wealthy families that might have provided an auto, but in 1903, privately owned automobiles were not common.
For example, an article from The Weekly Tallahassean for November 8, 1900 mentions that much excitement was caused when the first automobile was seen on the streets of Tallahassee. Only three years later, in November, 1903, it was still such a novelty that The Weekly Tallahassean reported a “locomobile” sighting downtown. These were the days that cars were oddities, attention-getters. Maybe the DeCottes and Carter families had cars, but it wasn’t likely that the students did.
An auto in 1903 was more trouble than a horse: The roads were mostly dirt, rutted, better suited for horses. And, you had to ‘feed’ the auto. In 1903, if you owned one of the two or three cars in Tallahassee, and ran out of gas, you might have to wait for help from a neighbor on a horse.
Also, autos were considered the playthings of the wealthy. In 1903, an $850 car costs about $22,970 in today’s dollars. That’s out of the price range for your typical family of four back then, when the average family annual income was approximately $500.
Back to the Ormond Beach race. Even though Emmett and his friends didn’t realize it at the time, this particular race they attended was a big deal, because it was considered the first unofficial Automobile Club of America (later, AAA) race — the first NASCAR before it was ever NASCAR!
The reason why it wasn’t official is below:
So, what exactly did Emmett and his friends witness?
A land-speed record set by Alexander Winton, in his bright red “Bullet” for a straightaway run down the beach: One mile in 52.5 seconds.
The thing about this race is that it wasn’t promoted very widely (despite the big bucks of Henry Flagler, Winton, and W.J. Morgan supporting it). About 3,000 attended the race over three days, but there weren’t many reporters there. Ransom Olds (father of the Oldsmobile, and owner of the ‘Pirate’) wasn’t happy with the low press turnout; when the race was repeated in 1904, he made certain that the national press knew about the races at Ormond Beach.
But Emmett and his roommates knew about the race! They likely were thrilled with the idea of speed, riskiness, the adventure (especially when it involved cutting classes), all in a brand new invention that only a few years earlier was the stuff of dreams.
Imagine what that must have been like, to be Emmett and his friends, to witness this race?
Did Emmett and his friends get these guys’ autographs? I hope so, but perhaps the crowds prohibited it — it was reported that about 3,000 were on hand for the races over the three-day weekend in March.
Perhaps they brought their pocket Kodak cameras with them and took photos of the events. Emmett liked photography; perhaps he took snapshots and placed them in his scrapbooks.
(Updated from the article originally posted by the author here.)
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