Barney Oldfield: King of Speed – Part 6

This is the final entry in a six part series on Barney Oldfield.  Please see the links for prior entries: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5.


In 1915, Dario Resta was the man to beat. He had won the Vanderbilt Cup and Grand Prize races earlier that year. A match race specialist, Barney challenged Resta. Soon, driver’s Cooper and Burman were added four a four-way match race. The match race took place on August 19, 1915. Initially, Barney had been confident in the potential of his newly-readied French imported Delage. He quickly lost faith in the Delage. He lost badly in the Chicago match race.

Dario Resta

Elgin, a road race, was a couple weeks later. Barney Oldfield smashed into a hay bale win the first turn; however, he was able to continue. Stutz were second and fourth. Barney managed to get his Delage into the third position.

In September 1915, at Fort Snelling in Michigan, Oldfield’s shocks caused him so many problems that he pitted somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 different times throughout the main event. Cooper and Anderson, both driving for Stutz, continued to be successful.

Oldfield, at Indy, in his Delage.

By March 1916, Barney was desperate for a win. At an exposition in Sand Diego, Oldfield raced Burman, Tetzlaff, and Durant—all very respectable racers of the day. On the third lap, Durant, Burman, and Tetzlaff went wide. Barney Oldfield took the lead; however, an oil line eventually burst open. Yet again, Barney and his troublesome Delage were out of the race.

To Quit or Not to Quit, That Was Her Question.

Two weeks later was the circular boulevard race in Corona, California. Tragedy struck at the race. “Wild Bob” Burman was racing hard when the left rear tire of French Peugeot let go. Burman was thrown wide. He fractured his skull and died of his injuries. His riding mechanic, as so often happened, was also killed.

At this time, Barney was married to his devoted wife Bess. Bess Oldfield pleaded with Barney to stop racing after Burman’s death. However, Barney countered by noting her previous support for his racing. She responded that before he had something to prove—that the old master could still win. Impliedly, she suggested that he no longer needed to race as he had already accomplished more than enough. Given the risk of racing in those deadly days, her argument was probably well justified.

However, Barney could not stop racing. He had spent his entire life fighting to remain a household name and was not about to fade into oblivion. Moreover, he had recently talked to the Harry Miller—the SoCal engine-building genius. A new car was to be built specifically for Oldfield, at a cost of $15,000.00.

The Golden Submarine

The story of Harry Miller is fascinating, but demands a greater telling than available here. In short, Harry Miller was probably a genius when it came to building fast engines. However, he also stood on the shoulders of giants: Miller had previously rebuilt a Peugeot for Burman. Through this process, he was able to see the inside workings of Europe’s finest and most cutting edge engine.

Many of the secrets of the 1914 Peugeot found their way into the four-cylinder lightweight aluminum engine that Harry Miller was already working on. When Oldfield learned of Miller’s new engine, he contracted Miller to build an entire car for Oldfield.

Oldfield paid Harry Miller $15,000.00 to prepare him an enclosed aerodynamic car driven by Miller’s new engine. Initially, it was called an “Oldfield Special.” Before it was built, Barney Oldfield was telling newspapers that the car was named the “Flame of Fury.” This may, of course, been the sole doing of Will Pickens, Oldfield’s publicist and eternal hype man.

The enclosed early example of aerodynamic body work was ready by June 1917. What was created was one of the oddest looking vehicles ever created. It was called the “Golden Submarine” by its supporters and the “Golden Egg” or “Golden Lemon” by its detractors. Love it or hate it, people came out in droves to watch Oldfield race it against Ralph De Palma’s twin-six 12 cylinder Packard.

Oldfield’s Final Mount

The Golden Submarine was ready to go racing mid-season in 1917. The car was shipped to Chicago for a June 16, 1917 race on the Maywood board track. From there, he flogged the car throughout the 1917 season. It was the twilight of his career but Barney Oldfield was still gripping the grain hard and pushing deep into turns, even with quite unusual Golden Sub.

Race tables show a pathetic performance for Oldfield in the 1917 points-paying championship races. He took his Miller engined ride to the last four championship of the races. The comments section to each of these four races reads: broken valve spring; wrecked; flagged; did not start. In other words, Barney Oldfield never received a single AAA championship point.

However, as a shorter distance match racer, the Golden Submarine was a beast. Not only was it a beast, but it was a great marketing piece to draw fans to the seats. Barney was winning some races, but also, raking in a fortune of cash. For example, at Sheepshead Bay, a board track in New York, the gate receipts were $75,000.00. Oldfield pocketed 10 percent of this. In those days, $7,500.00 was an absolutely enormous sum of money to earn in a single day. I use the word “earn” intentionally, as let us not forget how dangerous this type of racing.

Still Feuding with DePalma

The feud between the racer’s racer, Ralph DePalma, and the consummate showman, Barney Oldfield, never completely cooled off. In fact, Oldfield’s career ended with the feud burning hot. Make no mistake, these two genuinely did not like each other. They were diametrically opposed in everything from racing style to lifestyle.

In Milwaukee, Oldfield beat DePalma in a match race. Then, DePalma won because Oldfield lost a wheel. After that, DePalma beat Oldfield. Then, at the next race, he wrecked. Oldfield was on his back foot. But, this was not a man who ever gave up, as evidenced by the length of his career.

Through September 1917, De Palma and Oldfield continued to swap headlines in the papers. For example, in Providence, Rhode Island, Barney took the first heat. Ralph took the second. In the third, Oldfield dove low narrowly escaping the inner rail and certain death, to squeak past DePalma.

After that, De Palma beat Oldfield in Detroit. So, Barney turned around and won in Indianapolis and St. Louis. Then, Barney took a bit of time to race at the “Maxwelton Mile” in St. Louis, Missouri. The thing about Barney, if not already obvious, was that he was all about his legacy. In St. Louis, he broke another series of records establishing the Golden Submarine as the fastest dirt track racer in the world. In fact, he set nearly every major record available on ovals. The records range from one to 100 miles.

In his wreck at Uniontown, the Golden Submarine had proved dangerous. Should the door jam in a crash, it became a death trap. But, the Miller engine (a heavy influencer of the future Offenhauser engine) was, nevertheless, supremely fast. So, Barney Oldfield performed surgery on the Golden Submarine, resecting it of its closed cockpit. In fact, pictures show most of the rear body work removed for the 1918 season.

Oldfield’s Final Competitive Season

The 1918 season was Oldfield’s final competitive season. By this point, he was pushing forty years of age. Racing in those days meant challenging death every few weeks. Sanctioned racing was also heavily curtailed due to US involvement in the world war. Enough was enough and Barney decided to retire from the racing game.

After Racing

Like all racers, Barney needed a sustainable gig after racing. He, like many showman, also wanted to keep his name in front of the public. Harvey Firestone, the tire magnate, provided him with an opportunity. Firestone started a subsidiary line, the Oldfield Tire Company, of which Barney was installed as the chief executive officer.

Barney was reported to have received $50,000 for the use of his name in addition to his yearly salary. He even moved to Akron to oversee the company. He tried to fit the part of a corporate tycoon. This was a difficult role for him. Barney was better suited to carousing in a bar than running a corporation.

By 1922, it was clear that Barney’s performance as CEO was wholly unacceptable. Harvey Firestone bought him out. Oldfield Tire Company retained Barney’s name, but he was no longer associated with any of the day to day operations of the company.

Regardless, Barney Oldfield was a rich man and it was the roaring twenties. The stock market was hot and Barney Oldfield knew his share of insiders. He made a fortune several times over until the crash of 1929. Like a lot of naive investors, almost all of his wealth was invested on margin. In short, he lost it all in the crash.

Barney Oldfield never raced again. He never found much success in other endeavors. He lived to be 68 before dying of a brain hemorrhage. To me, the latter years of his life were quite sad as he hopped from endeavor to endeavor trying to hold on to scraps of his former life. Oldfield was, in all regards, bigger than life. But, the sheer bigness of his life was difficult to maintain.

Barney Oldfield played a major roll in early motor racing. Yet, he is essentially forgotten today. In this regard, an important lesson can be learned in the difficulty of leaving behind a lasting legacy.



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