Daytona is known for fast cars, family vacations, biker bars and its miles and miles of beach, but its written history stretches back almost 500 years, and it centers on Ponce de Leon Inlet just south of present-day Daytona. The inlet is a cut that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Halifax River—which isn’t a river but rather a saltwater lagoon separating the mainland from the barrier islands that front the ocean. The northern island is Daytona Beach; the southern is New Smyrna Beach. In 1513, Ponce de Leon, who had accompanied Columbus on his second voyage and become a provincial governor in Puerto Rico, arrived somewhere along the coast, possibly at Ponce de Leon Inlet. The people who met him, the Timucuans, had the distinction of being among the first Native Americans exterminated by the Europeans and their diseases. The Spanish pinned the name “Mosquito Inlet” on the area in honor of the predominant form of wildlife (the city tourism folks changed it in 1926) and then moved on to build their first colony on the North American mainland at St. Augustine, 55 miles north. It wasn’t until 1768 that a Scottish physician, Andrew Turnbull, received a grant to establish a plantation south of Mosquito Inlet. Turnbull’s wife was the daughter of a merchant from Smyrna in Turkey. He named his new colony for her father’s hometown, calling it “New Smyrna,” recruiting 1,200 Minorcans, Sicilians and Greeks as settlers. The colony lasted from 1768 to 1777, when it was mostly abandoned. Much of Florida remained loyal to the British Crown through the American Revolution, and the Daytona area was a haven for smugglers, pirates and eventually blockade runners during the Civil War.
Modern Daytona was founded by Mathias Day of Ohio, who built a hotel in what is now downtown Daytona Beach in 1874. Henry Flagler connected a local railroad to his Florida East Coast Railroad in 1889, and snowbirds began vacationing in the area during the winter. By 1903, Daytona was attracting automobile engineers, inventors and motorcyclists to try out their newfangled vehicles on the area’s 23 miles of hard-packed sand. Daytona’s first land speed record was set in 1904 by William Vanderbilt, who drove a Mercedes to a blazing 92 mph. Thirteen speed records were set here between 1905 and 1935, when the hot cars moved to Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah for their speed trials. However, the city had been bitten by the racing bug. The next year, the city asked a local promoter to organize an auto race on a course that used the beach and a stretch of Highway AIA. The promoter drafted auto mechanic and race car driver Bill France Sr. to help him. France took over promoting the annual race in 1938, eventually founding NASCAR, the sanctioning body for stock car racing, in 1947. The opening of the Daytona International Speedway in 1959 was a major boost to the area’s popularity, bringing families to the beach to enjoy the Speedway, the sun and the surf. The racing—auto and motorcycle—also attracted bikers, who now swarm the area during Bike Weeks and Biketoberfest to party in the streets and ride the back roads between Daytona Beach and Orlando. When Fort Lauderdale in South Florida began discouraging college students from coming to town for spring break, Daytona welcomed them with open arms and it’s still one of the prime party locations on the East Coast. Today, more than 8 million visitors a year come to Daytona—some to play in the sand, some to party in the bars, and some to watch their favorite drivers swap paint on the famous track.