Barney Oldfield: King of Speed – Part 2

This article is the second in a series on Barney Oldfield.  Click here for the first entry.  

The Winton Change

On August 6, 1903, The Minneapolis Journal, and other news sources, announced that Oldfield had signed a contract to race a Winton and to promote Winton cars. As of August 22, 1903, he was on the track racing the Winton Bullett II.

An interesting strain of automotive journalism is the description of the ever-legendary four-wheel-drift. Here, a writer for the San Francisco Californian exclaimed, “Barney Oldfield is one of the most brilliant and daring of automobile racing men, allowing the rear wheels of his machine to skid at the curves in a truly alarming manner.”

Oldfield Driving a Winton Bullett on the beach.

Motorsport scholar William F. Nolan suggests Oldfield’s motivation for switching to a Winton was a matter of money. He was offered $2,500.00, which was solid money in-hand. While Oldfield changed cars a number of times early in his career, he would eventually become a staunch supporter of Firestone tires. He stuck by Firestone tires throughout his career.

Speed is Dangerous.

In August 1903, Barney Oldfield was searching for records to break. He set the three-mile record in Columbus, Ohio at 3:10. Then, he was back at Grosse Pointe. That race, however, was dangerous. A St. Louis paper reports:

“While Barney Oldfield’s racing machine racing automobile was running nearly sixty miles an hour at the Grosse Pointe track this afternoon in the ten-mile open event, one of the front tires on the machine burned through and exploded, throwing the car into the fence and injuring Frank Shearer, a spectator, so terribly that he died in an ambulance en route to the hospital.

The article continues:

“The Car went fifty feet through the air and Oldfield, who kept his seat, had a marvelous escape from death, He received several cuts about the body and had one broken rib.”

At the end of the article, a shocking description introduces the danger of watching motorsports up close.

“Shearer was standing against the fence at this point, and the car struck him squarely, breaking both legs in several places and fracturing his skull. He was thrown seventy-five feet and never recovered consciousness.”

Nolan, in his biography of Barney Oldfield, writes, “Stunned at the news, Barney shook his head. ‘They warned people not to sit on the rail,’ he said. ‘I was afraid something like this might happen. Why didn’t he listen to what they told him?’” Nevertheless, this incident was not enough to dissuade him from racing cars.

A Note on Barney’s Cigar

Barney Oldfield, is almost always photographed chomping on a cigar. The legend goes that Barney cracked a tooth during the race or crash in Detroit that day. Thereafter, he used the cigar as a tobacconated mouth guard and shock absorber.

Barney Oldfield and his usual cigar.

Daytona’s First Speed Week

In Ormand, Florida, W. K. Vanderbilt raced Barney Oldfield for a record on a smooth beach race. According to Nolan, “The affair was held on the 15-mile sweep of Ormond-Daytona’s glass-smooth beach, affording drivers the rare opportunity of full-speed motoring.”

Officially designated the Ferrari 365 GTB/4, the Ferrari Daytona stands as a testament to the reputation of Daytona, Florida for speed. The car is named for Ferrari’s success at the 1967 24 Hours of Daytona. However, the 24 Hours of Daytona, the Daytona 500, and other famous races would never had happened but for the beach at which records were set by Vanderbilt and Oldfield.

Barney Lives Hard

Around this time, Barney had already learned to live hard and live fast. After the speed week event around Daytona, Barney toured a number of other cities, picking up quick cash to feed his increasing hunger for the good life. However, in a moment of desperation, he failed to honor a race commitment. As Nolan notes, Barney Oldfield was called before AAA. Specifically, the chairman of the racing board A.R. Pardington, lectured Oldfield and fined him $100.

The bigger problem for Oldfield was his boss, Alex Winton. Winton would not renew Oldfield’s contract, stating “I won’t have scandal connected with the Winton Automobile. Nevertheless, he was a successful racer and he had options.

As noted above, the Mooers-designed Peerless “Green Dragon” was originally built to be raced at the 1903 Gordon Bennett Trophy Cup in Ireland. It was powered by six-by-six square bore and stroke engine. Immediately, in the seat of the Green Dragon, Oldfield began to slay his competition.

Death at the World’s Fair

The 1904 World’s Fair was America’s chance to show off its industrial advances. Naturally, there was plenty of nearby entertainment. One such attraction was a track near to the grounds of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. On August 29, 1904, the front page of the St. Louis Republic shouted: “Oldfield’s Sixty-Horse-Power Auto Bolts Through Fence Killing Two Men

Prior to the accident, there were four initial events. Then, the accident occurred at the start of the fifth event, a ten-mile race “for big machines.” In 1904, rules and regulations for classes of cars were poorly delineated, as the AAA had just come into formation in the past year or two.

The racers were touted as going “a mile a minute” as though such speed was inherently inhuman. Another driver, A.C. Webb, was in front of Oldfield. The were racing heads up and sliding around the corners of the track. Blinded by the dust in his eyes, Oldfield took the outer line. He got too high toward the outer edge of the track. Then, in a matter of seconds, the accident occurred.

According to the St. Louis Republic, “[Oldfield] ran into and through the fence, and, knocking Scott and Montgomery down, ran fifteen farther to a maple tree, where the machine was demolished by the collision.” He was able to walk from an automobile to the clubhouse where a doctor from Missouri Baptist Sanitarium treated his injuries.

Another account was similar.

“Webb led by twenty yards. He held the middle of the track as he mounted the bank at the turn his machine threw a cloud of dust in the air that obscured both machines from the sight of the 25,000 spectators.”

The article goes on the explain the cause of the accident:

“Oldfield tried to pass Webb at the three-eights pole, and as he found that he was nearing the car in the dust he went to steer around it. He did not realize that the fence was so close on account of the blinding dust, and the machine bolted into it.”

Barney pronounced, as his injuries were examined at the clubhouse, that this would be his last ever race. Both of his parents had attended the race.

The men killed were named John Scott, 48, of Adams St. and Nathan Montgomery, 32, of Lee Avenue. Barney Oldfield was severely injured. Reportedly, 25,000 people were there to watch the race and witnessed the accident, insofar as they could see behind the dust and smoke. “Scott’s son, a manly little fellow of 15 years, cried bitterly as he listened to the story of his father’s death.”

Initially, Barney declared that this would be his very last race. While recovering, at Missouri Baptist Sanitarium (Hospital), he met Bess, his future wife. By November 1904, his tune about racing was changing. In fact, at the beginning of 1905, newspapers were announcing Oldfield’s to racing.

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