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.



Barney Oldfield: King of Speed – Part 5

For previous entires in the series: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4.

Stuntin’ with Lincoln Beachey

Will Pickens, Barney’s longtime manager, had long since diversified into other types of acts. Pickens, for example, now represented Lincoln Beachey, the first man to ever “stunt” an airplane. Between the 1913 and 1914 racing seasons, Pickens, Oldfield, and Beachey combined forces to put on a series of car versus plane races at various fairgrounds. The events were a huge spectacle earned the three gentleman a small fortune in a few short months. Pickens would later die in the San Francisco bay performing one of his acts.

The De Palma Feud Heats Up

Barney Oldfield had raced for Mercer before. The first big event of the 1914 season was the Vanderbilt Cup, which was to be held in Santa Monica that year. The Mercer team had already signed Ralph De Palma for the race. However, the team manager could not resist having two of the hottest names in racing on the same team. He tapped his history with Barney Oldfield and signed him up to drive for Mercer. De Palma was furious. In fact, he was so upset, that he refused to drive on the same team as Oldfield. Oldfield, the consummate showman, and De Palma, the racer’s racer, were diametrically opposed in personality and approach to racing. De Palma ended up having to look elsewhere for a car to drive, given that he could not stomach being on the same team as the old master, Oldfield.

De Palma found an aging Mercedes racer, that he had used to win the Vanderbilt Cup and Elgin Trophy in 1912. Shortly after the start, several drivers in front of De Palma crashed and overheated. Suddenly, he found himself in the lead. According to the writer and painter, Peter Helck, Oldfield in his Mercer “hounded the German car relentlessly, clipping chunks of time lap by lap and being within 8 sec. at 190 miles.” However, Barney’s fast and furious approach destroyed his tires, causing him to pit beyond that required by De Palma. Once again, a few laps from the finish, Barney’s tires were running thin. Again, according to Peter Helck’s classic account of the race:

“De Palma swung wide on Nevada Avenue turn and, looking back, observed the crucial state of his opponent’s rubber. Virtually together, both cars thundered past the picts when De Palma signaled for a stop next time. As hoped the signal was observed by Oldfield and obviously welcomed by the old master. At lap end, with the German car trailing guilelessly, the Mercer scooted in for replacements, while De Palma, successful in the ruse, never paused.”

And so, De Palma continued on without pitting to win the race by 80 seconds. This would be the last notable success for the old-style chain-drive cars.

At the Indy 500, France and their new style of cars, dominated. Rene Thomas won the race, followed by Arthur Duray, Albert Guyot, and Jules Goux. Barney Oldfield placed fifth, in a Stutz, ranking him best against the other Americans.

Around the beginning of World War I, for Europe, Barney continued to drive for the Harry Stutz. In July 1914, Barney Oldfield was out early, due to engine trouble, at a race in Sioux City, Iowa. In August 1914, De Palma wins the Elgin Road Race for the Chicago Auto Club Trophy. Barney Oldfield only managed fourth place. Wishart, another driver, was killed the following day competing for the Elgin National Trophy.

The 1914 Cactus Derby

The Cactus Derby was a rough and tumble off-road race that pushed even the most well-designed cars to their absolute limit. In 1914, the race took a new route as compared to previous years. It was set at 671 miles, to be completed over three days. According to an article by Mark Dill, “Conventional wisdom suggested that only reinforced stock cars had the sturdiness to survive the potholes, boulders and riverbeds the course presented.”

Barney Oldfield was never one for dogmatic adherence to conventional wisdom. Barney Oldfield loaded up his low-slung Stutz from the Indy 500 and headed for Los Angeles in November 1914.

As could be expected for these early racers, it was a race of attrition. Twenty cars started; however, only eight were able to finish. Fortunately, the aging Barney Oldfield, now 36 and called ‘the grand old man’ was successful. Usually known only for track racing, Oldfield showed his versatility by overcoming terrible weather and strong opponents to win the race on time.

Barney Oldfield won the race in 22 hours and 59 seconds for an average speed of approximately 29.2 miles per hour. He was 35 minutes ahead of the second place finisher. Oldfield, the old master, proved that he still had a few tricks up his sleeve.

The Maxwell Team: Setbacks and Resurgance

For the “circle city” Corona meet, on Thanksgiving Day, Oldfield switched to the Maxwell team. In fact, at the invitation of the team’s manager, he joined the team only one day before the start of the race. These 140 horsepower cars were designed by Ray Harroun, the first Indy 500 winner.

Although the old-man was still competitive, he only managed fourth on the AAA championship points list. This was the closest that Oldfield, for all his track records, would ever come to winning the national championship.

For the 1915 season, board tracks were rising in popularity. These circle tracks, built entirely from two-by-fours narrowly laid end to end, were coming into their own. Oldfield would need to master yet another type of racing.

Initially, in 1915, Oldfield had a series of setbacks early in the season. However, he would briefly recover and find some success before his contract with Maxwell ran out. In January, his car caught fire. In February, at San Francisco, a piston broke. In March, at the Vanderbilt Cup also in San Francisco, Barney Oldfield was simply not competitive.

English: Barney Oldfield posing with race car ...

Following Barney’s uncompetitive performance at the 1915 Vanderbilt Cup, Maxwell redesigned several aspects of their race cars engine, including the exhaust. The net result was a more powerful racer. With his newly improved mount, Oldfield turned around and won a 300 mile “boards over dirt” race. Barney also won the next race in Tucson on March 20, 1915.

Unfortunately, the success may have gone to Barney’s head. He returned to his partying ways. When May rolled around, Barney was hard at it. In fact, in Indianapolis, Barney partied so much the night before the 500, that he was unable to turn a single lap. He noted that the noise alone of his engine might just kill him. Ralph De Palma won the Indy 500 that year.

Around then, in the middle of the 1915 season, Barney Oldfield’s contract ran up. He needed a new competitive car, but fate delivered something else entirely. His millionaire friend, and chairman of the Touring Board of the AAA, David G. Joyce purchased and imported a grand prix racing Delage from France.

Barney was excited at the prospect of another European imported vehicle. Unfortunately, the Delage would the least successful car that Barney ever raced. After importing the car, it took several weeks to prepare the car for domestic racing.

During the wait, Oldfield brought out the killer-Christie, his front-wheel drive beast, yet again. The Christie, now ancient by racing standards, was still fast. However, it’s achilles tendon was the fact that it overheated after just a few laps of running. But, as a record-setter, it was still a good mount. On July 2, 2015, in Tacoma, Washington, Oldfield set records for the 1/2 mile, 1 mile, and 2 mile distances.

In the main event, on the fourth of July, Barney drove a Peugeot. Today, commentators occasionally speak of how tightly-knit the racing community is. They travel together, they all know each other, and they race hard against each other. This commonality of experience yields a certain loyalty to other members of the community. This was probably even more true in the old days, when racing meant equal chances at victory and death.

Billy Carlson, a fellow racer and close friend, was at wide-open-throttle top speed on the 60th lap of the Tacoma main event. On the back stretch, one of his tires popped. The car was thrown like a projectile over a 30-foot embankment. Neither Billy Carlson, nor his riding mechanic, survived the day. Oldfield was shaken; however, in those days the race always went on. Barney took fifth place.

Stay tuned for the remaining entries in the Barney Oldfield: King of Speed series.

Barney Oldfield: King of Speed – Part 4

This is the fourth entry of a multi-part series on Barney Oldfield, an original king of speed.  For the preceding entries:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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.

Jack Johnson, Heavyweight Champion.

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.

Original “Front Wheel Fury”

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.

Barney Oldfield: Kind of Speed – Part 3

This is the third installment of a multi-part series on Barney Oldfield, an original king of speed.  Here is Part 1.  This is Part 2.

Barney Oldfield: The Man

Barney was headed for a race at the local Topeka, Kansas track, when he gave a classic interview. In Barney fashion, he started off the interview by announcing that, “I don’t like driving”

“It is too dangerous. I don’t think that I shall be in it longer than this year. Had a man told me in 1904 that I would still be behind goggles at this time this year, I should have pronounced him crazy.”

When asked what he meant, he propounded the following:

“We have to take chances. It always seems that an accident is impending. We never know what will happen. If a man is just right, the element of danger is to a big extent eliminated. But with nerves a little off, with weather conditions so that the dust absolutely precludes vision, you can never tell when the call will come.”

Barney Oldfield liked to dress flashy. The newspaper article notes sparkling precious stones on the lapel of his coat, “the same kind of ornamentation” on his fingers. He also rolled with a crew. Only one was a mechanic, while the others were there purely to “look after the business end” of things. This article reveals an early predisposition to showmanship, a trait that Barney embodied to a fault, throughout his career. In time, his dedication to *the show* would undercut the legitimacy of his talent.

Barney went on racing throughout the 1905 season. He had another close call in August. He escaped a mid-field jaunt with “a badly lacerated scalp and a severely bruised right arm.”

1906 was a quieter racing year. However, he earned $36,000.00 from racing just after the mid-point of the season. Before and in-between his racing obligations, Barney Oldfield even appeared in a play with his former bicycle buddy Tom Cooper. The production was a play about the Vanderbilt Cup—an important road race big enough to draw considerable international talent.

Under Arrest

At the beginning of 1907, Barney was still racing a modified version of his “Green Dragon.” However, his races were increasingly becoming “an act” as you might see upon a stage. Allegations started to fly that his races were pre-arranged.

Peerless Green Dragon, Barney Oldfield.

The Spokane Press, on July 5, 1907, announced, “Auto Racing Fakers Pinched…Barney Oldfield, the automobile racer, was arrested in Portland, Ore., and a warrant got out for his manger, yesterday by the Portland Telegram in the interest of clean sport.”

Barney Oldfield was accused of promoting fake automobile races by a Portland Newspaper. Of course, the newspapers accounts were a bit sensationalized, as was a matter of course in those days. Upon deeper drilling into the actual events, it turns out that Barney Oldfield’s manager had advertised a card of drivers when he knew many of the drivers had no intention to participate in the regional race. In this regard, Oldfield and his manager were charged with “obtaining money by false pretenses.”

He was quickly released on $500 bond. The charges would be dismissed a few days later. However, that is not the whole story. The night following his release on bail, fueled by alcohol, Barney threatened suicide. According to a newspaper report:

“Barney Oldfield, the automobile speed marvel, attempted to commit suicide early this morning. Oldfield attempted to leap from a window of the Portland Hotel. He was restrained only the united efforts of his wife and a detective.”

Enter Ralph De Palma

Of Italian decent, via Brooklyn, Ralph De Palma was born on December 18, 1882. Around four years younger than Oldfield, De Palma, like most of this era, got his start with bicycles. From there, he graduated to cars. Ralph De Palma shows up in the automobile racing record in later 1907 and early 1908. In fact, one of his first big races was against Barney Oldfield in 1908. De Palma managed to beat the legendary Barney on the track in June 1908. According to motorsport historian, William Nolan:

“Furious with himself over his poor showing, Barney stormed off the track without bothering to congratulate the sensitive De Palma. Thus, without any direct violence, a feud was precipitated between the two drivers which persisted, in varying degrees, throughout their careers.”

The Blitzen Benz

The Blitzen Benz, with an enclosed body and a boatish tail, was a very early exercise in auto racing aerodynamics. With some refinement, it eventually boasted 200 chain-driven horsepower. Its 21.5 liter engine sounded like canons, lots of them.

Gripping the grain in his chain-driven monster.

The full story of the cars development is beyond the scope of the present inquiry. In short, Benz developed the car to compete at the 1908 French Grand Prix. The French Grand Prix driver, Victor Hémèry, then took the car to Brooklands (a high-speed banked track, which had recently been built in England).

Living Hard and Setting Records

Meanwhile, alcohol was getting the best of Barney. William Nolan’s account of Barney Oldfield fills in some critical details of how the Blitzen Benz came to be.  He notes:

“Oldfield was living up to his reputation as a prime hell raiser. Scheduled to drive to a meet in Missouri, he disappeared for three full days. Will Pickens (his manager and hype-man) and Bess (his current wife) made the rounds of every saloon and gambling emporium in Kansas City, finally locating Barney at a dive on Main Street. He was out cold—and they put him on a stretcher and carried him to a taxi.”

The next day, Bess and Barney had a heart-to-heart. He confessed he made a fool of himself. According to Barney, his recent antics were precipitated by boredom. His wife asked him what he planned to do. In classic Barney fashion, he declared that he become the world’s fastest man, by breaking the land speed record of 127.5 miles per hour, set by a Stanley Steamer in 1906.

To do this, Oldfield needed a new car. He already had a 120-hp Benz. It just was not fast enough at top speeds. But, Barney had heard of the beastly 200-hp Benz that Hémèry used to set some kilometer (as opposed to mile-based) records at Brooklands.

He contacted the Benz representative in America and arranged a deal to trade in his 120-hp Benz and a fat stack of cash ($6,000.00) for the white 21.5 liter Benz.  There was no mistaking his intentions; he arranged for the 200 horsepower racer to be shipped directly to Daytona Beach.  In those days, before folks ran at the Bonneville salt flats, Daytona Beach was flat, smooth, and most importantly it was long.

Soon enough, the Benz arrived in Daytona Beach and the record attempt was scheduled for the local speed carnival (what we might, today, refer to a “speed week”).

The headline was quite literally true, “Barney Oldfield, Speed Kind of the World: Traveled Faster Yesterday Than Human Being Ever Travelled Before.” After a few warmup runs, including one with his wife Bess, Barney was ready to go. He headed down to the starting point, revved his engine, dropped it into gear, and was off. When all was said and done, Oldfield set the *flying mile* record at 131.7 miles per hour.

Following the race, Barney Oldfield:

“I let the great machine have its head, and for fully a third of the distance the wheels were off the ground while I fought for control. The front wheels were shooting up and down in a weird dance, and I knew that if a tire burst, I would be beyond mortal help. I shot through space until all before me became enshrouded in a dark haze and I approached the verge of unconsciousness. Then I shut her down, knowing I had traveled faster than any other human on the face of the earth.”

When news reached Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm personally telegrammed Barney. He wrote, “I congratulate a daring yankee on so remarkable a performance in a German car.” The excitement was short lived. The A.I.A.C.R., the forerunner to the F.I.A., announced that Barney Oldfield’s only ran the car in one direction. To set a speed record, the governing body determined that the record needed to be an average of two runs in opposite directions, to account for wind and gradients. As a result, you cannot find this attempt listed in official land-speed record annals.

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.