Wearing a leather cap, a well-manicured moustache and a steely gaze, Glenn Hammond Curtiss stares out of a time-worn black and white postcard-like photo. In the background, frothy waves splash the beach, the very hard packed sands upon which his experimental V-8 powered motorcycle will transport him into the history books as “The Fastest Man in the World.” The day was Thursday, January 24, the year 1907 and the place, Ormond Beach on the east coast of Florida. The record … 136.3 mph, a land speed record that would stand for 11 years and then only surpassed by an automobile— the Blitzen Benz hitting 141 mph. It would not be until 1930 that a motorcycle would best Glenn Curtiss’s feat of daring-do and mechanical design.
The surfside setting for the famous blast down the beach had its origins a few years earlier when in 1902 influential Ormond Beach residents began promoting racing on the local beach with an inaugural automobile speed run. The sport grew in popularity and even Henry Ford showed up for an event in one of his early cars, and slept in it. At the time, he couldn’t afford a hotel room. Another “celebrity” to take up residence in Ormond Beach was John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller wanted to live to 100 and was looking for the perfect healthy environment in order to reach the century mark (he made it to 97). Ormond Beach became a playground for the rich and famous … and those feeling the need for speed. Case in point, one Glenn H. Curtiss, a true American hero and a larger than life personality whose exploits inspired a popular series of youth books “The Adventures of Tom Swift” penned by Victor Appleton. And yes, there was one volume circa 1910 titled “Tom Swift and His Motor-Cycle or Fun and Adventures on the Road.”
Curtiss was always looking for new adventures on, or off, the road. He knew he could find the fast lane he needed to break the existing record at Ormond Beach. It was at Ormond Beach in 1904 where Charles Schmidt drove his Packard Gray Wolf to a world record in the kilometer at 76 mph and where, William Vanderbilt, Jr. set the world record for the one-mile, reaching 92 mph in a 90-horsepower Mercedes. These races put Ormond Beach on the speed map and brought it fame as home to 30 years of land-speed records eventually evolving into the now famous Daytona Beach 500 and the founding of NASCAR.
Back in 1907, the 29-year old Glenn Curtiss had already invented or developed many of the more than 500 designs and components he would use during his lifetime. He had a hand in the development of the Wright Brothers first airplane and additional aeronautical experiments. He also partnered with Alexander Graham Bell that included developing and patenting the aircraft aileron now universally intrinsic to controlled flight.
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