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Who The Hell Do You Think You Are—Barney Oldfield?

Barney Oldfield started his career as a racer on a bicycle, but everything changed in 1902 when he was hired to drive automobiles for a little known automaker out of Detroit. Henry Ford had driven his 999 for himself in a race or two, but soon decided that he felt safer just making the cars. He needed someone else with the sheer grit and daring needed to drive his car at high speeds, and 24 year old Barney Oldfield was the man for the job. After seeing the 999 for the first time, Oldfield told Ford, "But I've never driven a car." Inexperienced as he was, Oldfield is rumored to have learned the controls of the car the morning of his first race, and by the end of the day he had defeated what was thought to be the world's fastest car, the Winton bullet. He defeated all the competitors by at least half a mile in a five mile race. Barney Oldfield made a name for himself that day as a fearless and exciting driver, and he also put his sponsor, Henry Ford, on the map and on his way to becoming the most prominent American automaker of all time.

Soon Barney Oldfield was a household name and was racing cars all over the country, setting speed records left and right. Oldfield was the first ever to drive around a mile track in less than a minute. By 1910 he achieved a speed of 131.25 mph, then considered the, "fastest ever traveled by a human being." Oldfield traveled around America with his shrewd agent Will Pickens from town to town with the carnivals, issuing an open challenge to anyone brave enough to race him. Oldfield was the first American to become a celebrity solely for his ability to drive a car with great skill, speed, and daring. Racing became very lucrative for Oldfield, and by his career's end he could command at least a thousand dollars just to show up for a race. All this was at a time when Henry Ford's 5$ a day wage was considered incredibly high. Soon this wealthy racing phenomenon was living a truly extravagant lifestyle, hanging out with the most elite crowd and showing up for races in his own private railway car. At the time when Oldfield was racing, only a small segment of the population could afford automobiles, and being a race car driver placed him among the highest class in society. As we will see later, racing would not remain such a high class pursuit.

Barney Oldfield relished the fame that racing brought him, and soon he was moving from the race track onto the big screen and the Broadway stage. Oldfield played in a Broadway musical entitled The Vanderbilt Cup with co-star Elsie Janis and toured with the show for ten weeks. Oldfield also starred in several movies, including a 1913 silent film called Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life, in which he races a train in order to save heroine Mabel Normand, who has been tied to the tracks by the villain played by Rod Sterling. Of course, Oldfield saves the day due to his ability to drive his automobile with such great speed. Historian Mark Howell notes that, "Perhaps there is something symbolic in the fact that Barney Oldfield outraced a locomotive in this film, as though the automobile, by 1913, had exceeded the railroad in terms of American importance" (Howell 229). Oldfield himself and his huge celebrity status is indicative of a culture fascinated with automobiles and with pushing the limits of their potential. However, what made Oldfield special is that he could win lots of races even when he didn't have the fastest car due to his great skill behind the wheel.

Oldfield was a showman both on and off the track. On the track, in a best of three heat race, Oldfield was known to win the first heat by a nose, then lose the second on purpose, only to add drama to the final heat in which he would clinch the victory. Although somewhat artificial, Oldfield sought to give his fans some excitement when they came to watch him race. Drivers today are still just as eager to please their fans, though today's competition is much tougher than in Oldfields day, and toying with your opponents is no longer an option even for the best racers. Oldfield's career spans the time during which auto-racing went from being a fascinating novelty and wonder of technology to becoming a respectable, organized sport. Oldfield also was the first to have the outlaw image as a driver, facing numerous suspensions from the AAA (American Automobile Association), which attempted to govern most early racing events. Oldfield was a rowdy character known to get into plenty of barfights, and had an off-the-track reputation much like that of Babe Ruth off the ball field. Oldfield, sadly enough, also had a good part in keeping blacks out of auto-racing. Oldfield raced champion African-American boxer Jack Johnson with the primary goal of proving the superiority of the white race, especially in auto racing, since the heavyweight boxing champ was African American. Racing has remained almost a totally white sport ever since. All in all, Oldfield left future stock car racers with the legacy of being daredevils, but also for those crazy enough to risk their lives racing cars, he left the hope of earning a great deal of money and fame.

“Who the hell do you think you are—Barney Oldfield?” That was the motorcycle cop’s standard question for fifty years, and even today you can hear it once in a while if you get caught speeding. For Oldfield’s name still holds the dim thunder of the huge, primitive racing cars that slammed through the dust at the murderous dirt-track meets of the turn of the century. Barney Oldfield was not the best driver in that reckless era; his rival, Ralph De Palma, for instance, handled a car better. But of all the early racing men, only Oldfield became legendary. No cop ever asked, “Who the hell do you think you are—Ralph De Palma?”

Berna Eli Oldfield was born on an Ohio farm in 1878. Like many of the boys who were growing up in the iSgo’s, he became infected with the cycling craze, and he began his racing career on a borrowed Royal Flush bicycle in an 1894 cross-country contest. He came in second. Two years later he was barnstorming through the Midwest with his Racycle Racing Team, billing himself as “The Bicycle Champion of Ohio.”

Oldfield was shifting his allegiance to motorcycles by 1902, when he received a letter from an old cyclist friend named Tom Cooper. Cooper had recently abandoned the sport to help a mechanic named Henry Ford—who was trying to grub up enough money to start a motor company—build a pair of racing cars. The cars were taking shape, and Cooper wanted Barney to come to Detroit and lend a hand.

Cooper was supposed to be Ford’s driver, but in fact no one was anxious to handle the cars. They were nothing but engine and frame, steered by handle bars, with exposed crankshafts that sprayed oil over the driver. Oldfield was enchanted by them. He begged for a chance to try one, was given the “999” (named after the New York Central’s famous locomotive), and took it around the mile-long Grosse Point track in slightly over a minute. He was immediately chosen to drive in an upcoming race against the champion Alexander Winton in his favored car, the Bullet. “Well,” Oldfield’s biographer William Nolan quotes the fledgling driver as saying, “this damn chariot may kill me, but they will say afterward that I was goin’ like hell when she took me over the bank!” And sure enough, to the astonishment of everyone but Oldfield, the Ohio cyclist boomed past Winton’s machine to win the five-mile race.

The ensuing publicity got Ford the financial backing to start his company. It also launched Oldfield’s career. The next spring he rammed the 999 around a mile track in 59 and 3/5 seconds, becoming the first man in America to drive a gas-powered car a mile a minute. A month later he shaved four seconds off his record. As The Automobile magazine told it: ”…Oldfield with a roar like unto a passing comet, skidded around the far turn and flashed past the howling, horn-tooting crowd…in an exhibition that caused the whole great crowd to gulp and gasp. Men were white-faced and breathless, while women covered their eyes.…When the judges hung out 551Vs seconds as the time the riot of sound broke loose afresh.”

In the years that followed, Oldfield became a national figure. He drove throughout the country in cars with wonderful names—the Green Dragon, the Golden Submarine, the Killer Christie, the Blitzen Benz. The automobiles were heavy, overpowered monsters with thin, unreliable tires, and Oldfield had his share of accidents. He chipped his teeth in one, and thereafter drove with a cigar clenched in his mouth to check the vibrations. The cheroot became his most enduring trademark.

He made a great deal of money in those days, but always spent it faster than it came in. He was arrogant, boastful, and he drank. His friend the prize fighter Jim Jeffries said, “I did more fighting in saloons getting old Barney out of scrapes than I ever did in the ring.” Once, Oldfield showed up at a track with a hangover so blinding that he drove his car through the fence on the first turn.

But his popularity remained strong. In 1910 he set a new world speed record of 131.7 miles per hour in the big, chain-driven Blitzen Benz, and left this rich description of the run: “I let the great machine have its head, and for fully a third of the distance the wheels were off the ground while I fought for control. The front wheels were shooting up and down in a weird dance, and I knew that if a tire burst I would be beyond mortal help. I shot through space until…I approached the verge of unconsciousness. Then I shut her down, knowing I had traveled faster than any other human on earth.” Kaiser Wilhelm sent him a personal telegram: I CONGRATULATE A DARING YANKEE ON SO REMARKABLE A PERFORMANCE IN A GERMAN CAR.

Shortly after this triumph, however, he was suspended from events sanctioned by the American Automobile Association after he had defied the organization to run a ludicrous race against Jack Johnson, a fine prize fighter but an inept driver. Cut off from the big races, he kept before the public by barnstorming country fairs with two other drivers who would always ease off at the last riiinute so that the fans could see their hero win a split-second victory.

Oldfield was eventually readmitted to the AAA. He still drove hard, and he often won races. But he was slowing down. Finally, in 1918, he retired.

His happiest days were behind him now. He promoted Firestone tires for a while, but he drank too much, and the job was gently taken away from him. He lost all his money in the stock market, went through a succession of stormy marriages, and, ironically, spent some time giving lectures on auto safety for the Plymouth Motor Corporation. He took to hanging around in bars, cornering customers and asking forlorn questions: Did they remember when he crashed at Corona in 1913? Did they remember when he won the 1914 Cactus Derby? They almost never did.

Barney Oldfield died in 1946 of a cerebral hemorrhage. It was not the end he would have chosen. “If I go,” he had once said, “I want it to be in the Blitzen Benz, or a faster car if they ever build one, with my foot holding the throttle wide open. I want the grandstand to be crowded and the band playing the latest rag. I want them all to say, as they file out the gate, ‘Well, old Barney—he was goin’ some!’”

Joe McCarthy. The Man Who Invented. American Heritage. December 1975; Volume 27, Issue 1.
Richard F. Snow. Barney Oldfield. American Heritage. February 1977; Volume 28, Issue 2.

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