Down East 2013 ©
Image McArthur Public Library of Biddeford, Maine
Nothing against Daytona and NASCAR, but there’s something cool about racing automobiles on a Maine beach. People living in Old Orchard Beach back in 1911 thought turning their famous strand into a racetrack was an intriguing idea, and one that might help put the resort community back on the map after the devastating fire of 1907. Tides at the fastest beach in the world, Ormond Beach in Florida, only permitted racing for two hours a day, whereas Old Orchard’s wide expanse permitted at least five hours of flat, dry sand.
For the first of three days of racing scheduled for Labor Day weekend in 1911, an estimated fifty thousand people, half of them women, converged on Old Orchard. Whether they arrived by train, private automobiles, or even sailing yachts, they all came to see if a Maine-built Stanley Steamer would set a new speed record. The course was straightforward: a mile and a quarter from the pier to a barrel and a flag near Googins Rocks, then back and underneath the pier (two pilings were removed to make a forty-foot-wide passage), and finally out and back the same distance on the north side of the beach. Louis Disbrow’s Pope-Hartford racer immediately set the pace on the five-mile oval, nearly hitting a hundred miles per hour and officially becoming the fastest car ever driven in Maine. His praise for the conditions was unequivocal. “In the South, the beaches are a little harder but they are covered with shells and rocks, which make them the hardest in the world for tires,” Disbrow told the Biddeford Daily Journal. “Old Orchard Beach is free from shells. It may not be quite as hard as the Ormond beach, but it is better as a speed beach. I have never seen anything to equal it.” And L.F.N. Baldwin did not disappoint with his Stanley Steamer — his thirty-nine-minute mile was indeed a new record.
By the time Saco photographer Charles E. Moody snapped this series of photographs of cars rounding the Googins Rocks mark, the 2 p.m. low tide had passed and the sand had become softer. Never mind that this led to more skidding and the sand-clouds captured here, or that the surf the racers had to turn toward was advancing rapidly. The drivers reportedly had so much fun that they waved to the crowds as they passed, and this glee extended into the crowd, where “good nature was everywhere uppermost.”
Unfortunately, the positive vibrations of this seaside drag strip were not to last. When more races were held at Old Orchard the next summer, organizers charged spectators an admission fee, and even hung curtains to block the views of the non-paying public. By 1914 the Old Orchard races were a thing of the past, the tide having long since erased the tracks of these classic machines.