In 1937, someone came up with the idea of staging a motorcycle race, half on a broad sandy beach, half on a highway. Engines roared and sea gulls soared. The only thing lacking was common sense and perhaps an oceanographer.
But there was a race to be won, so Ed (Iron Man) Kretz climbed aboard Indian Scout, No. 38, and left the others to eat his sand, then his mud, to win the first Daytona 200.
"They started the race when the tide was out, but they should have started it when the tide was \o7 going\f7 out," Kretz recalled. "They didn't know any better because it was the first time they'd held a motorcycle race on the beach, but before the race was over the tide was coming in. When I was on my last lap, I had to ride up in the soft sand and barely made it to the finish line. The starter's stand was in water."
This Sunday, Kretz, a few spokes shy of his 80th birthday, will ride the same, meticulously restored, Indian Scout bike on a parade lap before the 50th running of the Daytona 200, America's most prestigious cycle race, on the high-banked tri-oval of Daytona International Speedway.
This time, Kretz won't get his feet wet. The race has moved inland to higher grounds; the old highway is now Florida A-1A.
In the first race, Kretz lapped the field, averaging 74.10 m.p.h. and finishing in 2 hours 43 minutes 27 seconds. The course was 3.2 miles with two long straightaways--one on the beach and the other on the narrow highway--with 180-degree turns at each end. The treacherous spot was the south turn, where bikes came off the asphalt onto the sand.
Twice Kretz fell in the south turn, but both times managed to pick up his Indian Scout, jump back on and take off again.
"Ed was such a determined rider," starter Jim Davis--who has seen every Daytona 200 since--recalled recently. "He didn't hold back at all. He'd tell the other riders before a race, 'Stay out of my way or I'll run over you.' And most of them believed him."
Kretz rode in every Daytona 200 until the race was moved to the infield course of Bill France's new speedway in 1961.
"I led every one of them, but something always happened and I never won another 200," Kretz, who will be 80 in September, recalled. "Once, I was way ahead, but when I pitted, the clutch cooked while I was getting refueled. Another time I was thinking I had it won when I blew a tire. I did win a shorter race there in 1938, though."
Kretz started his racing career in 1934 in a 25-mile race through the forest at Big Bear.
"Racing was real primitive back then," he said. "I lived in Corona and my wife and I rode our old Harley up to Big Bear. All I did was take the saddlebags off and go racing. I didn't even take the headlight off.
"I rode out to practice and pretty soon the officials ordered me off the track. I couldn't figure out why because I was going pretty good, but they told me the race had started and I wasn't entered. I knew I was fast because I'd passed the guy who won the race."
In 1935, after finishing second in the Targa Flora road race promoted by Floyd Clymer in Los Angeles, Kretz became a factory rider for Indian.
"First race I rode for them was in Savannah, Ga.," he recalled. "It was a 200-miler and I not only won, I broke the record by 10 miles an hour. The next year, the race was moved to Daytona and I won that one, too."
Later, Kretz won four national championship races on the dirt track at Langhorne, Pa., two at Laconia, N.H., and one in Riverside, on a TT (steeplechase) track in Box Springs.
"When I won Riverside, I wore Levi's and a T-shirt," Kretz said. "I didn't have a helmet or gloves. Once, when I was riding at Langhorne, I got so beat up by flying rocks that I started wearing a leather shirt under my jersey."
He got the name "Iron Man" after a dirt track race at Laconia in 1938.
"That race was so rough, it took more than 4 1/2 hours," Kretz said. "Early in the race, I hit a chuck hole and fell off my bike. My carburetor was filled with dirt, but I managed to push the bike to the pits. I took the carb off and the manifold was plugged with rocks clear to the valves. It took me 15 minutes to clean it out with a hammer and chisel, but when Igot back out I was still in the lead.
"After about 50 miles, I lost my left floorboard and had a hard time holding my steel-bottom boot on top of the drive case. I had to grasp the handle bars so tightly to stay upright that I burned three layers of skin off both hands. But I was going just as fast at the finish as I was at the start and I won the race. That's when they started calling me Iron Man."
Twice, in 1938 and again in 1949, Kretz was voted most popular rider in a poll taken by the American Motorcyclist Assn.
Kretz quit riding for the factory team in 1952 when his son, Ed Jr., went into the service, but in 1954 he rode in a 100-mile TT race at Ascot and won lap money, a heat and the trophy race, earning $1,100.
"It was more than I ever won for winning a national, and I beat Joe Leonard when he was No. 1," Kretz said.