LIFE at Daytona: Motorcycle Madness on the Florida Sands

Low-angle view of some of the participants in the Daytona 200 motorcycle race as they sit astride their bikes, Daytona Beach, Florida, March 1948.
Joseph Scherschel—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Not published in LIFE. Riders ready to race, Daytona Beach, Florida, March 1948.

For years, from its inception in 1937 until the early ’60s, the prestigious Daytona 200 motorcycle race wasn’t merely run at Daytona Beach. Along with other high-speed, high-risk clashes, the 200 was run on Daytona Beach.

In 1948, LIFE magazine covered the races, both amateur and pro, at Daytona (the Road Course opened in 1936) and reported, in its April 19 issue, that “for four days last month the resort city of Daytona Beach could hardly have been noisier—or in more danger—if it had been under bombardment.”

Here, seven decades later, opens a window on that long, loud weekend—a weekend that thrilled racing fans; slightly scandalized one very popular weekly magazine’s editors; and, as if proof was needed that the young sport was still in the hands of rebels and scofflaws, saw two people killed and 30 more injured in the midst of all the high-octane fun.

The 1948 event, which attracted “375 helmeted daredevils and plenty of non-racing hell-raisers,” was marred not only by deaths and injuries but, as LIFE duly noted, by classic knuckleheadism. “Because the antics of an unruly minority reflect on the dignity of motorcycling,” the magazine observed, “the American Motorcycle Association may hire special police at future races. One duty will be to restrain sophomoric cyclists who amused themselves this year by tossing firecrackers into the crowd.”

Ultimately, as LIFE tersely reported, “155 motorcycles started, only 45 finished. Winning rider, Floyd Emde, averaged 84 mph, got $2,000.” What LIFE failed to mention is that Emde (who was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998) won by the sliver-thin margin of 12 seconds; 1948 was the first time a rider led the race from flag to flag; and it was the last time an Indian Motorcycle won the 200.

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