The lady who drove 150 mph on the sand: Flashlight & A Biscuit, No. 33

It's Daytona Day, so let's talk speed and sand

Welcome to Flashlight & A Biscuit, my Southern sports/culture/food offshoot of my work at Yahoo Sports. Thanks for reading, and if you’re new around here, why not subscribe? It’s free and all.

Hey, we’re back! That was a little three-month hiatus caused by covering the Masters, chasing the election, weathering the holidays, and chasing another election, but here we are. Call this the premiere of Flashlight & A Biscuit Season 2. And we begin with a fade-in on the sands of Daytona Beach

What’s the upper limit of speed? Back in the early days of the 20th century, the belief was that if you somehow managed to travel faster than 75 mph, forces beyond all comprehension would rip you apart. Given that there were only a few dozen miles of paved roads in the entire country at that point, there wasn’t much opportunity to build up enough speed to push that envelope.

A gentleman by the name of William K. Vanderbilt II, heir to the Vanderbilt fortune, disproved the 75-mph theory in 1904 by hitting 92.30 miles an hour — covering a single mile in 39 seconds, in other words — on the wide, flat sands of Daytona Beach. This marked both the first time anyone had hit that mark and the last time a Vanderbilt showed any kind of quality ground game.

Willie V’s speed record set off a half-century of motorsports daredevilry on the sands of Daytona. The sands of Daytona are packed hard, making the beach an ideal proving ground for testing the upper limits of automotive technology and human courage. The former failed a lot more than the latter; cars pinwheeled into the surf, fragmented on the sand, flipped into watching crowds. People died, often and spectacularly, and yet there was always another driver ready to roll right afterward.

The array of rogues, miscreants, layabouts, indolent heirs and outright lunatics who ran the sands at Daytona could fill its own book, but one of the best was a slight, Detroit-born young lady by the name of Vicki Wood. Born in Detroit in 1919, the only girl in a family with seven children, she was raised among engines and grease. She didn’t start racing herself until 1953, when her husband, a gentleman with the evocative name of Clarence “Skeeter” Wood, put her behind the wheel for a “powder puff” (ladies-only) race. She came in ninth out of 25 drivers that first race, won her second race one week later, and by then she’d caught the bug.

Seventy years before Danica Patrick, Wood climbed her way up through the ranks of racing, eventually qualifying to run races at Michigan International Speedway and Daytona. In 1959, some overzealous guard tried to throw her out of the pits at the brand-new Daytona International Speedway, where women weren’t allowed; NASCAR founder Bill France thundered that “Vicki Wood is not a woman. She's a driver, and she's allowed in the pits.”

Wood set records for female drivers everywhere she drove; a few of the men she raced against got sour at the thought of being passed by a woman, but her attitude was, sorry, hon, it’s not my fault you’re slow.

She caught the eye of Chrysler’s marketing team, which put her on the beach to test-drive their topline Chrysler 300s in the late 1950s. She set what’s billed as the fastest record for a stock-bodied (i.e. showroom) car at Daytona by hitting 150.375 miles per hour.

As befits someone who could drive faster than most of humanity can imagine, Wood carried herself with style, often wearing a scarf and skirt in the car. When a reporter asked why, she once replied, “I knew I’d probably win and you’d want to interview me, and I wanted to look good.” 

For all her triumphs, she was still a woman in a man’s world. NASCAR race applications of the day had a line for “Wife’s Name,” and she would strike that out and write “Husband’s Name.” When she retired from racing, she ended up working at a department store in Florida. She lost her license just a few years ago at age 99 when someone complained about her still being behind the wheel, and Wood was reportedly livid at that.

Vicki Wood died this past summer at the age of 101, 20 years after her beloved Skeeter. These days, there aren’t many women driving in NASCAR’s upper series — since Patrick retired in 2017, no woman has driven at the highest level — but as Wood showed 70 years ago, ladies’ feet can be every bit as heavy as men’s.

These days, you can still drive on Daytona Beach. You can take your four-wheeler or minivan or — hypothetically speaking, of course — rental car out there right to the edge of the surf. But local law enforcement recommends you go just a little bit slower…

(Sources: Yahoo Sports, New York Times, Detroit Free Press)


Check this: In preparation for today’s Daytona 500, here’s a few stories over at Yahoo Sports that you ought to check out: Me on the catastrophic wreck last year that nearly cost Ryan Newman his life; me on Dale Earnhardt, the last American badass; Nick Bromberg on what to expect out of this race; and Dan Wetzel on Bubba Wallace, the new face of NASCAR, and brand-new owner Michael Jordan.

Read this: Just finished “November Road” by Lou Berney, a 2018 thriller set in the days right after the Kennedy assassination. A New Orleans fixer with a little bit too much knowledge happens to cross paths with an Oklahoma housewife who’s just taken her two daughters and walked out on her old life. It’s a nervewracking chase story, but it’s also about hope, freedom and making hard choices that close off all your possible other futures, good and bad. Find it & give it a go.

Hear this: “When You Found Me,” Lucero. Man, I miss live music so much. Lucero’s a band out of Memphis that plays the kind of raw rock/country/soul that’s peculiarly Memphian (Memphibian?). Best heard live with a cold bottle of beer in your hand, but this latest album of theirs will have to do. You can check out “Outrun the Moon” and other tunes I’ve endorsed in this space on the Official Flashlight & A Biscuit Spotify playlist:


Hot donuts now: Tough news out of downtown Atlanta this week, as the fabled Krispy Kreme on Ponce de Leon Avenue caught fire and burned to the ground. The store had stood in that same location since 1965, and was most recently owned by a local entrepreneur by the name of Shaquille O’Neal. The “Hot Donuts Now” orange neon sign was a beacon for the hungry, the lonely, the drunk and the hungover for half a century. I can’t count the number of times I inhaled a mess of fresh-off-the-rack original glazed, each one warm as a Christmas Day fire and sweet as a mother’s hug. The shop will be back — this isn’t exactly a struggling small business we’re talking about here — but it won’t be the same.

The battle over donuts in the South isn’t quite as fierce as the battle over barbecue, but we’ve all got our favorites. Drop your favorite local donut shop in the comments below. I’ll go check ‘em out … for research purposes, of course.

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One more: we lost a fine writer and an even better man this week. Terez Paylor, one of our NFL experts at Yahoo, died suddenly on Tuesday. We’re still not over the shock of it all; he’d literally just wrapped up another stellar season with some of the best reporting on the NFL in the entire sport. He was sharp, funny, knowledgeable beyond almost anyone else in the media … but more than that, he was just a kind soul.

I remember filming Super Bowl videos with him a couple years back; I’d spiral out some wiseass commentary about the Rams or the Patriots, and he’d slide right in with some obscure stats he knew off the top of his head that supported my exact point, propping me up, not showing me up. Read my colleague Henry Bushnell on Terez … you’ll come away wanting to live up to Terez’s example.

All my love to his family and friends. We lost one of the best.


That’ll do it for this week. Thanks for reading, friends, and hug your people.

-Jay


This has been issue #33 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. And if you dug this, share it with your friends. Invite others to the party, everybody’s welcome.

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