This is the fourth entry of a multi-part series on Barney Oldfield, an original king of speed. For the preceding entries:
Boxer Jack Johnson Races Barney Oldfield
Jim Jeffries, a former heavyweight champion of the world, circa 1905, came out of retirement to defend his status and boxing prowess. The challenger Jack Johnson destroyed Jeffries.
At some point, Barney Oldfield endorsed a rumor that the black Johnson had drugged the white Jeffries. Jack Johnson, like Barney Oldfield, was a fan of living large and driving fast. Johnson was incensed at the suggestion that Johnson’s win over Jeffries was anything short of completely legitimate.
Jack Johnson responded to Barney Oldfield stating, “I’d be happy to beat Mr. Oldfield at his game as easy as I beat Mr. Jeffries in the ring. In fact, I’ve got $5,000.00 that says I’m a faster driver on any track.”
A war of words, stained with racist paradigms, ensued in the newspapers between Oldfield and Jack Johnson. As the race got closer, AAA got involved. Making sure to note that Jack Johnson was black, AAA condemned Barney for getting involved with such farcical spectacle.
Oldfield defended his decision to stage the exhibition match in upcoming October on contractual grounds, as he continued to publicize the race:
“I signed the contract for the race with Jack Johnson without knowing that the three As would not sanction the race, and in my contract I made no mention of any sanction. A week ago, I accepted a bonus from the promoters of the race, and now they refuse to accept the return of the money and threaten me with a suit I refuse to carry out my part of the contract to race Johnson. Besides, they claim that I will get the reputation of being a quitter.”
After several delays due to bad weather, the race finally took place on October 25, 1910 on a muddy circle track. Barney, a master of dirt tracks, had no trouble in trouncing Johnson. In fact, Oldfield won the first two five mile heats, rendering a third heat completely unnecessary. Barney Oldfield was, in fact, banned by the AAA from sanctioned racing This particular ban was for one year and forced Barney to go underground for the 1911 season.
Prelude to His Final Act
Suspended from sanctioned racing by the Automobile Association of America (AAA), Barney Oldfield sat out most of the 1911 season. He tried to run a bar; it did not go that well. Finally, 1912 rolled around. He was ready to get back in the game, but he needed a car. A chance meeting with a man named J. Walter Christie provided an opportunity.
J. Walter Christie had made a fortune by designing, producing, and selling military gun turrets. Technically, vehicles driven by their front wheels had previously existed. However, it was Christie that patented the front-wheel-drive vehicle as we know it today. He was granted patent 761,657 on June 7, 1904. He had a prototype built sometime in 1905. The patent itself contemplates a racing vehicle. It frequently refers to high-speed capabilities that may need to be modified for more moderate-speed touring.
Christie immediately set to work designing cars. He had a prototype by 1905. In 1907, a front-wheel-drive Christie was used to set a new record for the dirt track mile. A number of these cars were designed with different engines. There is one problem: each of these race cars was notoriously brutal to handle at speed.
This would not be a hangup for Barney. In late spring 1912, he jumped at the opportunity to purchase the most powerful Christie racer for the tidy sum of $750.00 from J. Walter Christie himself. At the time, his front drive Christie was reported be 300 horsepower; however, more reliable modern estimates suggest a figure of 140 to be more accurate.
By mid-September 1912, Oldfield was quick. He was even setting a record or two in the car. In early October, he attended the Vanderbilt Cup. Ralph DePalma, Oldfield’s nemesis, won Vanderbilt cup. DePalma went on to win the AAA championship that year. But, Barney would not set by idly and let his reputation be eclipsed. He would be back with a vengeance in 1913.
In the meantime, he starred in a film called “Barney Oldfield’s Race for Life.” This film has been cited as possibly the first example of a damsel in distress on train tracks.
Barney’s first major race of 1913 was a match race against “Terrible” Teddy Tetzlaff. Barney brought his front drive Christie to race against Tetzlaff’s giant Fiat. On the banked wooden board-track, Oldfield was victories. He even set two new world records. Not only that, but he persuaded Tetzlaff’s mechanic (who often rode with the driver, in those days, in some types of racing) to join his camp.
For the next race, Barney could not get to the race in time to practice. Instead, he sent Hill, the mechanic he stole from Tetzlaff, to practice for him. Oldfield’s plan was for Hill to learn the course. This sounded crazy to Hill. However, when race time came around, Barney instructed Hill to just hit his back anytime he was going to fast for a corner. The plan, somehow, worked and Oldfield won the race.
A month later, Barney Oldfield loses to Tetzlaff only after having a near miss in which he barely escaped unscathed. Remember, in those days, almost any crash could be fatal. This does not slow Barney down. In late April, Oldfield lowered the world records of “Wild Bob” Burman and his nemesis Ralph De Palma. He raced the mile oval in 46.4 seconds, which beat the previous record by over one full second.
Over the July 4th weekend, Oldfield showed his versatility by racing in a rugged road race from Los Angeles to Sacramento. The 444 mile trek was known for destroying cars. Unfortunately, Oldfield’s Hewlett Fiat broke its chain drive. Even still, he managed third place with his Fiat. The winner, Earl Cooper, was coming on strong. In fact, he went on to win the 1913 AAA driver’s championship.
Although he kept the beastly-Christie, Oldfield joined the Mercer team for the upcoming Santa Monica road race, which was a massively attended event at the time. Oldfield, determined to keep his reputation intact held the lead at the end of the first lap. Tetzlaff chased Oldfield. Earl Cooper came on strong and challenged Tetzlaff for second. Finally, Cooper passed Tetzlaff.
What followed has been described as an “unrelenting two-man battle” between Barney Oldfield and Earl Cooper. Toward the end of the race, Barney Oldfield saw Cooper in the pits. At that moment, he had an error in judgment. Seeing Cooper in the pits, Oldfield slammed his foot down on the loud-pedal. But, the torque was too much for his strained rear tires. They both exploded. Barney finished, but had given up the lead.
A short time later, Barney Oldfield headed to Corona, a unique town built in the shape of a circle, with a grand boulevard surrounding. Originally designed for the horse, a new type of thoroughbred descended on the town in September 1913. Barney raced a Mercer, painted yellow, and battled both Tetzlaff and Felix Magone, who was driving a Stutz. The track broke up during the race; there were numerous accidents. One of these accidents involved Oldfield. Toward the end of the race, a young boy could not contain his excitement and ran out onto the track, right in front Barney. As Oldfield’s car barreled down toward the child, Barney Oldfield swerved. He narrowly missed the boy, crashing into the crowd. Although nobody was killed, several spectators were injured severely. Earl Cooper went on to win the race.