American race car driver
Originally famed for his speed in bicycle racing, Barney Oldfield became one of the pioneers of automobile racing. From 1902 to his retirement in 1918, his name was synonymous with speed and daring on the road. He was the first person to drive faster than 60 miles per hour. According to his obituary in the Toledo, Ohio Blade, the inventor of the automobile, Henry Ford, said of Oldfield, "The man did not know what fear was."
Obsessed with Speed
Berna Eli Oldfield was born in a farmhouse outside Wauseon, Ohio, in 1878. His father, Henry Clay Old-field, and his mother, Sarah Oldfield, worked the farm and struggled to provide for Oldfield and his older sister, Bertha. The severe winter of 1889 was too much for them however, and they decided to move the family to Toledo, Ohio, where Henry could find work. He took a job at a local mental hospital, and Oldfield, then eleven, attended school in Toledo.
At the time, the bicycle was a new invention, and cycling became a national craze. The young Oldfield was fascinated by the machines, and by the time he was fourteen he was obsessed with getting one for himself. During his summer vacation, he got a job as a water boy for a railroad construction crew, earning a dollar a day, hoping he could save some of it for a bicycle. On Sunday, his day off, he spent the time at the local firehouse, hoping for a fire: as firehouse mascot, he was allowed to ride the horse-drawn fire wagon as it sped through the streets of Toledo. Thus, although he didn't yet own a cycle, he could fuel his love of speed.
According to William Nolan in the Toledo Blade, Oldfield told his parents, "Some day I'll own the fastest cycle in the whole wide world. People will come from a thousand miles away just to watch me ride it!"
By 1893, however, times were still hard, and Oldfield had to quit school and take a job with his father at the mental hospital, working as a kitchen helper. He disliked this job, and soon found a new one as a bellhop at the Boody House hotel in Toledo. Oldfield's outgoing and optimistic manner soon earned him plenty of tips. He also earned the nickname that he would use for the rest of his life, Barney, when the bell captain told him Berna was a "sissy" name and Barney was better. Oldfield's family began calling him Barney, and when he became an elevator operator at the Monticello Hotel in Toledo, his paychecks were made out to Barney Oldfield.
Oldfield was finally able to buy a bicycle, but it was heavy. The lightweight cycles used by racers were still too expensive for him. However, he soon discovered that a tenant of the Monticello Hotel had a lightweight cycle, and stored it in the hotel basement. Each night, Oldfield "borrowed" the cycle from its unsuspecting owner, and sped through the dark streets of Toledo. At the age of sixteen, in 1894, he entered his first cycle race. As an unknown beginner in a field of well-known riders, he didn't receive much attention. but as the race progressed, he moved up steadily from the back of the pack to second place. His prize was a $25 diamond ring, which he pawned to finance his next race.
That race was a failure, but it and others to follow were learning experiences for Oldfield, who learned about training, pacing, and tactics, as well as the physical danger of racing: he broke his collarbone twice, and his parents, who had bought a small ice cream parlor in Toledo, begged him to quit racing and join them in the business. Oldfield told them that he understood that they wanted to be proud of him, but that he would earn their praise his own way: through racing. Officials from the Dauntless bicycle factory had asked him to ride for them in the Ohio state championship, and he had agreed.
Although Oldfield came in second in that race, it was a turning point in his life. As a result of his exposure, he was hired as a parts sales representative for the Stearns Bicycle Company, and he met his future wife, Beatrice Lovetta Oatis.
|1878||Born January 29, near Wauseon, Ohio|
|1889||Family moves to Toledo, Ohio|
|1894||Enters his first bicycle race, comes in second|
|1984||Hired by Stearns Bicycle Company as a parts salesperson|
|1896||Marries Beatrice Lovetta Oatis|
|1896||Forms Racycle Racing Team with Fred Titus|
|1902||Races gasoline-powered bicycle; meets Henry Ford and buys his first car|
|1902||Wins Manufacturer's Challenge Cup|
|1903||Becomes first person in history to travel at 60 mph|
|1903-10||Wins numerous races, sets many speed records|
Oldfield and bicycle racer Fred Titus formed the Racycle Racing Team, and toured throughout the South and Midwest, barely making a living by pawning their medals and trophies. In 1896, Oldfield and Oatis were married. They did not know each other well, and the marriage would not be a happy one. In the meantime, Oldfield continued to tour as a bicycle racer.
Becomes an Automobile Racer
In 1902, Oldfield raced a gasoline-powered bicycle in Salt Lake City, where he also met automobile inventor Henry Ford. Ford asked Oldfield if he would like to drive one of Ford's cars, and Oldfield agreed. When he got to Grosse Point, Michigan, where the race was to be held, neither of Ford's two cars would start. Ford sold both of them to Oldfield and his partner, Tom Cooper, for $800.
Oldfield's new car, called the "999," had no springs or shocks, and was steered by a tiller, not a wheel. Cooper found that the unwieldy machine, almost impossible to turn or control, needed "a wrestler more than a driver," according to Timothy Messer-Kruse in Toledo's Attic. This role was perfect for Oldfield, and, as Messer Kruse wrote, in the Manufacturer's Challenge Cup, "Oldfield wrenched the car around the turns in a sliding cloud of dust that became his trademark and discovered his talent at last." He beat defending champion Mexander Winton by a half-mile in his first race.
On Memorial Day in 1903, Oldfield became the first person to drive a mile in a minute flat, and won another race. Two months later, he drove a mile in 55.8 seconds, leading his former competitor, Winton, to hire Oldfield to drive for him. Oldfield was given a salary, expenses, and free cars. He toured the United States, doing match races and speed runs; one year, competing for the Peerless company, he competed on twenty different tracks in eighteen weeks. He gave four exhibition runs and won sixteen match races in a row. When asked by a reporter from Automobile what it felt like to drive a mile in less than a minute, Oldfield said, "There is an exhilaration in driving fast that I cannot resist: it is like intoxication."
In 1910, Oldfield bought a Benz and broke all speed records for the mile, two miles, and the kilometer at Ormond Beach, Florida. With the fame these feats brought him, he began charging $4,000 for each personal appearance.
Oldfield's Legacy to the Sport
Because automobiles at the time were handmade and thus very expensive, most owners were extremely wealthy. Automobile clubs catered to this clientele, with selective membership policies; most owners and drivers were millionaires. The sport was well on its way to becoming the province of the rich, much like yachting or polo. Very few drivers came from the working class, and those who did, such as famed racer Ralph DePalma, did all they could to make the wealthy owners of their cars feel comfortable. DePalma, for example, wore the clothing of a chauffeur, and gave the owner of the car credit for his victories.
Oldfield, on the other hand, refused to wear uniforms, chewed cigars while he drove, and was not particularly loyal to sponsors—if a better offer came along, he took it. He talked loudly, swore often, spent time in bars, and did not show extra respect to the rich. He also took his machines, named the Blitzen Benz, the Green Dragon, the Golden Submarine, and others—out to county fairs and other venues and gave rural people a show they would never forget. Messer Kruse wrote, "For many Oldfield's cars were not the first they had ever seen, but they were the first they had ever seen driven by someone they could recognize as one of their own."
Awards and Accomplishments
|1903||Indiana Fairgrounds one mile dirt track, first circular mile under 60 seconds in US :59.6|
|1903||Columbus, OH, five mile exhibition, :05:00.6|
|1904||World's Records made in Peerless Green Dragon II: 1 mi.:00:51.2 70 mph; 5 mi.:04:30.0 66.5 mph; 10 mi.:09:12.0 65.0 mph; 15 mi.:14:05.0 63.7 mph; 20 mi.:18:45.4 64 mph; 25 mi.:23:38.6 63.2 mph; 30 mi.:28:38.8 62.9 mph; 35 mi.:33:36.6 62.2 mph; 40 mi.:38:31.6 62.4 mph; 45 mi.:43:29.0 62.4 mph; 50 mi.:48:39.2 62 mph|
|1909||Indianapolis, IN, Indianapolis 2 1/2 mi.Macadam Motor Speedway (Inaugural)—1 mi.speed trial, :43.0, in a Benz|
|1910||Daytona-Ormond Beach, FL, 1 mi.straightaway record, :27.33, in a Blitzen Benz; 5 mi.straightaway record, in a Blitzen Benz|
|1912||Cleveland, OH, 2 mi.track, :1:35.8, in a Christie|
|1913||Bakersfield, CA, dirt track, 1 mile in :46.4, in a Christie|
|1916||Indianapolis, IN, Brickyard Record: first over 100mph at Indy, in a Christie|
|1917||St. Louis, Missouri, 1 mi.dirt track noncompetitive speed records: 1 mi.:00:45.00, 80 mph; 2 mi.:01:30.40, 79.5 mph; 3 mi.:02:17.60, 78.5 mph; 4 mi.:03:05.60, 77.5 mph; 5 mi.:03:53.60, 77.2 mph; 10 mi.:07:56.20, 75.5 mph; 15 mi.:12:00.80, 75.0; 20 mi.:15:52.20, 75.5 mph; 25 mi.:19:57.60, 75.4 mph; 25 mi.:19:57.60, 75.4 mph; 50 mi.:40:47.60, 73.5 mph|
|1990||Inducted into Motorsports Hall of Fame|
How It Feels to Drive Under the Minute on a Circular Track
It doesn't thrill me a bit to drive a 1:05 clip, and though I might win races without having to drive under the minute, I just have to let it out to get another thrill. You just clamp your teeth on your cigar and get down to your work so that you know to an inch how much the car will swing on the turns, and you get more fun out of the ride than a whole stand full of people.
I haven't any mania for speed, and I don't lose my head and do the mad-man act or anything like that, but I do like to feel the car jump and feel the power of being able to guide the machine so nicely, no matter how quick the turns come.
My car is so well balanced and I know it so well, that I know just how to take those skids. A little too much turn of the front wheels would throw the back wheels out so far that the car would not right itself; then there would be something doing.
Source: Barney Oldfield, interviewed in Automobile. August 1, 1903, p. 116.
Naturally, the members of the racing elite were offended, and tried to exclude Oldfield from racing.
Knowing that Oldfield's strength was in fast skidding turns, they organized straightaway races where skill did not matter, as well as road races that simply favored the fastest machine, not the best driver. They also created racing rules that excluded Oldfield from competitions because he had broken these rules—for example, in 1911 he was barred from the famed Vanderbilt Cup races because he had raced in unofficial exhibitions at county fairs. In 1912 he was banned for life from the Indianapolis Brickyard because he had given an exhibition race against his partner Bob Burman. Burman, who also participated in the race, was not banned.
Oldfield was reinstated at Indianapolis in 1914, and his best finishes there were fifth in 1914 and 1918. In addition, he was the first driver in Indianapolis history to complete a lap at 100 miles per hour.
However, when Oldfield retired from competition in 1918 and became manager of the Firestone racing team, the A.A.A. refused to let him enter a track even if his own team was racing. Eventually he was reinstated, but by then he had lost many opportunities.
As Messer-Kruse noted, the officials of the A.A.A. had also lost opportunities, although they never realized it. At the time, most Americans viewed cars as dangerous, frightening machines, playthings of the rich. Many drivers were cursed at, had stones thrown at them, or were forced off the road by horse-drawn farm wagons. In addition, many communities passed impossibly low speed limits, intended to keep automobiles out. MesserKruse commented, "The millionaires in control of the A.A.A. never understood that Oldfield was the best weapon they had to batter down popular resistance to the growth of their sport." Oldfield was so well-known that police officers arresting speeders often asked, "Who do you think you are, Barney Oldfield?"—which, as Messer-Kruse wrote, made Oldfield "clearly someone who struck a chord with the common folk."
In 1990, Oldfield was inducted into the Motor Sports Hall of Fame. Driving at speeds almost unheard of at the time, Barney Oldfield was a pioneer and one of the fathers of modern racing.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY OLDFIELD:
Barney Oldfield's Book for the Motorist, Small, Maynard and Co., 1919.
"Great Racer Dies." Toledo Blade (October 5, 1946).
Nolan, William. "Barney Oldfield: He Got a Fast Start in Toledo." Toledo Blade (November 12, 1961).
Oldfield, Barney. "How It Feels to Drive Under the Minute on a Circular Track." Automobile (August 1, 1903): 116.
"Oldfield Got Lust for Speed on Toledo Bike." Toledo Blade (October 5, 1946).
"Barney Oldfield," International Motorsports Hall of Fame. http://www.motorsportshalloffame.com/ (November 5, 2002).
"Barney Oldfield: Toledo and Wauseon's Speed King." Toledo's Attic. http://www.attic.utoledo.edu/ (November 5, 2002).
Sketch by Kelly Winters