Oldfield, Berna Eli ("Barney")

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OLDFIELD, Berna Eli ("Barney")

(b. 29 January 1878 in Wauseon, Ohio; d. 4 October 1946 in Beverly Hills, California), race driver who is best known for his record set at the Indianapolis Fairgrounds on 20 June 1903 as the first person to drive a car at the speed of one mile a minute; he epitomized U.S. car racing more than any other driver, before or since.

Oldfield was born to Clay Oldfield, a farmer, and Sarah Yarnell Oldfield, who lived in a log cabin in rural Ohio. In 1889, the family, including Oldfield's sister, moved to Toledo, Ohio, where his father had a job as caretaker at a mental institution, the Toledo State Hospital. Nicknamed "Barney" during his teens, Oldfield left school in 1893 to work as a kitchen helper at the hospital where his father was employed. He later worked as a bell porter and as an elevator operator.

Oldfield's first bicycle race took place in Toledo on 30 May 1894—he placed second riding a Royal Flush—and he was eventually successful enough to be known as "The Champion of Ohio." His introduction to motor racing came about with Henry Ford's famous "999" car, and it was with this cumbersome machine that Oldfield started his climb to fame in 1903. When Alexander Winton designed a faster car, Oldfield shifted allegiance away from Ford and became just as famous driving Winton "Bullet Number 2." It was a curious move, as Oldfield had won for Ford its first National Championship in 1902, and his defeat of a Winton product had facilitated Henry Ford's efforts to raise capital for what eventually developed into the Ford Motor Company. It is said that many years later, Henry Ford told Oldfield, "You made me and I made you." To which Oldfield replied, "I did a damn lot more for you than you did for me."

Other famous automobiles driven by Oldfield included the Green Dragon, a Peerless machine, and the phenomenal Blitzen, a gray Benz-powered car that took Oldfield to a legitimate world speed record when he drove it at 131 miles per hour at Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1910. Oldfield was also quite successful with Maxwells, winning the 300 Miler road race at Venice, California, on 17 March 1915, and at Tucson, Arizona, on 20 March the same year, in their automobile. Driving a Stutz, he came in fifth at the 1914 Indianapolis 500-mile race (Indy 500), making it the best U.S. car in a race dominated by European entries. The following year saw his last appearance at Indianapolis, when he again placed fifth in a Delage. Another interesting machine driven by Oldfield was the Golden Submarine, an enclosed cockpit automobile designed by Harry Miller. And, as proof of his versatility, he also raced the tricky front-wheel-drive vehicle designed by Walter Christie.

Oldfield had a running feud with the Contest Board of the American Automobile Association (AAA), as two chairmen of the contest board saw fit to suspend him for life in 1910. The first was Sam Butler, who took exception to the promotion of a match race at the Sheepshead Bay track between Oldfield and Jack Johnson, the heavyweight world boxing champion at the time. Butler prohibited Oldfield from racing based upon the fact that Johnson, no matter how skilled as a boxer, was no race driver, and, furthermore, had no license. But when Oldfield's shady manager Bill Pickings obtained a racing license for Johnson, the race was held on 25 October 1910, over Butler's objections. Of course the race was a charade, and the result was that both Oldfield and Pickings were suspended for life.

On 30 April 1912 the new AAA chairman, William Schimpf, revoked Oldfield's suspension, claiming, "A successful merchant doesn't hide his best goods beneath the counter." But Oldfield could not stand prosperity. While under the influence of alcohol, he challenged the next chairman, Richard Kennerdell, to a fistfight. Kennerdell prudently beat a hasty retreat, and from the sanctuary of his office fined Oldfield $250 for "unbecoming conduct." That was not to be the end of it, however, for when Oldfield joined Ernie Moross and some other outlawed racers in non-AAA sanctioned events, Kennerdell once more banned him for life.

The ban did little to deter Oldfield from his lucrative appearances. As he aptly announced, he would race "[w]ith or without official sanction, wherever I get the sugar." The incomparable Oldfield was almost continuously rolling across the country in a carefully orchestrated show. He would parade before the gaping crowd, cigar in mouth. His car would arrive and be pushed to the side of the track, near the fence. After a little tinkering with the engine to give the locals the impression of fine-tuning, a demonstration lap or two would be run, followed by the announcer's call of an incredible time. Later, the race was on. Not surprisingly, Oldfield almost always won. Sometimes, they would set up three heats, in which the "Speed King of the World" would easily take the first, lose the second by a close margin, and then run away in the third and final. Other variations of this show included one-mile record attempts. Oldfield was well paid for these exhibitions, which more often than not resulted in a new "unofficial" world record. Furthermore, these arranged runs were a lot safer than any other race, staged or not.

All told, it is estimated that Oldfield drove in more than 2,000 races and exhibitions. He drove his last race in 1918, after almost twenty years of showing his skill and determination in tracks, road races, and record attempts. Following retirement, Oldfield started the Oldfield Tire and Rubber Company, which eventually was purchased by the Firestone Tire Company. He remained in touch with the automobile industry, mostly as a consultant in engineering. The financial crash of 1929 hit him hard, however, and he saw his accumulated fortune, estimated at more than $1 million, evaporate.

Oldfield was married and divorced several times. His first marriage was to Beatrice Loretta Oatis on 12 August 1896. They separated in September 1901, and divorced on 16 November 1906. His second marriage was to a widow, Rebecca ("Bess") Gooby Holland in January 1907. They separated in July 1923, and divorced in 1924. The third time around, Oldfield married Hulda R. Braden in December 1925; they divorced in 1945. His fourth marriage, in late 1945 or early 1946, to his former wife Bess, lasted until his death.

In 1946 the automobile manufacturers based in Detroit staged an extravaganza to celebrate the first fifty years of the motorcar. Appropriately named the Automobile Golden Jubilee, it was the setting for the recognition of Oldfield as one of the pioneers of car racing. Some four months later, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his home in Beverly Hills, California. He is buried in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.

Oldfield's contribution to the acceptance and tremendous popularity of automobile racing was unsurpassed. There were certainly better drivers, and perhaps more skillful promoters, but no one came close to Oldfield when it came to charisma and adoration by the crowds. The image of this daredevil racing car driver, sliding through the treacherous dirt tracks of the United States with a big cigar clenched firmly between his teeth and wearing a red jersey, remained indelibly fixed in the eyes of all who saw him perform. Never mind that many of the races were previously arranged, that other drivers were on his payroll, or that timekeepers were on the take—Oldfield and his circus gave the crowds what they wanted to see and hear. His fame and personal appeal was such that during the last century it was common for a traffic cop to say to a speeding motorist: "Who do you think you are? Barney Oldfield?" Aptly, though perhaps belatedly, he was inducted to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1990.

While Oldfield did not write a full-length autobiography, he did pen Barney Oldfield's Book for the Motorist (1919). The most complete source of information on Oldfield is provided by Toledo's Attic: The Oldfield File, an Internet resource located at http://www.attic/utoledo.edu/att01/bo/preface.html. The website contains a listing of track records, newspaper archives, photos, and biographical accounts. Other resources include Brock W. Yates, Racers and Drivers: The Fastest Men and Cars from Barney Oldfield to Craig Breedlove (1968), and Ralph Hickok, A Who's Who of Sports Champions (1995). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Toledo Blade (both 5 Oct. 1946).

Horace A. Laffaye