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 1

The Early Years

The Speed King of Swag

Barney Oldfield was a true American original. Barney Oldfield was a racer; he was also equal parts showman. Oldfield was there at the beginning of organized racing. At heart, he was a dirt-track man through and through. But, if you asked him, he was the “King of Speed.” He wasn’t just fast, he was cool.

The Bernd Eli (Oldfield) Years

Bernd Eli Oldfield was born on June 3, 1878, two years after Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. He had one older sister, Bertha Oldfield. Bernd Eli was born in a rural farming community in Ohio. Around his twelfth birthday, his family made a difficult decision to move to Toledo for a more city-oriented, industrialized existence. Growing tired of farm life, the Oldfield’s wanted to benefit from the conveniences of industry. And so, they moved Bernd and his older sister Bertha to Toledo, a thriving rail center.

Bernd dropped out of school between 12 and 15 years of age. Around 1893, Bernd Eli Oldfield took a job at a Toledo Hotel, the Monticello. In his later years, he would quip that his first job as a racer was operating the Monticello Hotel elevator. At Monticello, Bernd’s boss called him a sissy for his name; an insult which could not stand. To avoid coming to fisticuffs with his offending supervisor, Bernd Eli asserted “just call me Barney.” The name stuck. Even his parents began calling him Barney.

The Bicycle Years

Between 1893 and 1894, Barney became obsessed with bicycle racing, dropping out of school and working, in part, to save for his own bike. Unfortunately, what he purchased was too heavy to be raced. Like all speed fiends, he needed a better, faster, lighter machine. He eventually obtained a race-worthy bicycle. He entered his first race on May 30, 1894. He came in second. By the end of 1894, he had won some silver medals and a gold watch.

A young Barney Oldfield poses on a racing tandem bicycle.

In 1895, he attended the Ohio State Championship Races for cycling. This turned out to be a life changing event. There, he caught the eye of the Stearns Bicycle company. He also met a girl from nearby Canton and immediately proposed. She deferred; however, they did marry one year later. Barney later said this was but a teenage infatuation. The marriage ended quickly.

The Stearns Bicycle job involved some racing, but also it involved a lot of selling. Barney quickly learned how difficult it can be to survive on retail commission. Around this time, young Oldfield experimented in other endeavors. He went through a boxing phase, but was quickly known only for his glass jaw. He was soon headed toward motorsport partly by chance and partly by destiny.

The Motoring Connect

In 1899, his friend Tom Cooper won the Bicycle Championship of America. As a direct result of his success, Cooper then headed to Europe, where he encountered the motorized bicycle (an early form of the motorcycle). Meanwhile, the automobile quickly gained acceptance in America. Around this time, the great city to city automobile races of Europe were maturing; however, increasing speeds also caused significant and increasing dangers. Racing in the United States remained nomadic and primitive.

By 1900, Barney Oldfield’s own reputation was well-cemented; his bicycle racing exploits appeared in newspapers. According to tone article: “He is at present in Omaha, and is counted to be one of the fast men of this country.” In fact, both newspapers and bicycle advertisers touted his name at appearances throughout the summer of 1900.

Sometime in October 1900, Tom Cooper, his cycle racing buddy, brought a tandem motorized bicycle back from Europe with him. Then, serendipity stepped in. Tom Cooper decided to take the racer to a Detroit Track, Grosse Pointe. As it happened, the track was also Henry Ford’s local raceway. Cooper and Oldfield raced hard on the tandem single-cylinder that day; however, something much more important happened. A then-unknown Henry Ford, and a car of his own design, beat automotive giant Alex Winton’s race car on the track. It was on this day that Oldfield met Henry Ford.

Transition to a Driver

Barney Oldfield continued racing bicycles, notwithstanding a brief stint as a gold mine operator. By 1902, Barney had already headed back east. Newspaper articles establish that Barney Oldfield continued to race bicycles, powered or otherwise, through September 10, 1902. In the interim, Cooper wrote Oldfield and told him that they thought he should drive one of Henry Ford’s new prototypes.

Again, historian William F. Nolan’s account is crucial. Nolan wrote, “When Cooper joined Ford it was agreed that Tom would shoulder most of the financial burden, and that the plans, primary design and materials would be Ford’s responsibility.” A draftsman, C. Harold Wills, and a chief mechanic, Ed “Spider” Huff, also worked at the shop at 81 Park Place. Oldfield joined them in late September.

Now, as the story goes, they showed up with Ford’s new racers at Grosse Pointe, but they would not run. Henry Ford became upset and quit the venture. He sold the 999 and Red Devil cars to Tom Cooper on October 13, 1902. Ford’s basic premise was that he could not have his name associated with a failure at the race track.

The Celery King of Kalamazoo.

Oldfield figured out pretty quickly that (at least to him) racing was as much about self-promotion as outright speed. Sure, he had speed, but he needed a hype man. He went straight to Glenn Stuart, the Kalamazoo celery king. Glenn Stuart had a small farm, from which he grew it to such magnitude that it put Kalamazoo on the map.

Meanwhile, the 1903 Paris to Madrid fiasco and the relatively successful 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup, in Ireland, were taking place. Barney Oldfield, would eventually drive a car that he called the “Green Dragon.” As of the summer of 1903, the yet-to-be-named Green Dragon was being raced at the 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup; the Peerless racer would eventually be rebuilt for Oldfield.

Oldfield Off to the Races

On May 30, 1903, Oldfield was scheduled in a match race against a man named Charles Ridgeway in a Peerless. Oldfield won the first two, of three, heats. The payoff from the match was substantial. It was enough for Barney to pay off his parents’ entire mortgage. This was really his first truly significant automobile win.

Just a few days later, on June 20, 1903, in Indianapolis, Oldfield broke a world record when he drove an automobile one mile in 59 and three-fifths seconds. This feat was covered in newspapers all over the nation. Barney netted $1,200.00, a huge sum in those days, for breaking the record. Barney Oldfield was off to the races, as it were.

Within days, he back on the track trying to break the record that he had just set. Throughout his lengthy racing career, Barney Oldfield was more focused on breaking the next record than being a true racer. That should not denigrate his skill; however, it does speak to his motivations as a man.

At this point, Barney was still racing the “Red Devil” while Tom Cooper was rocking the “999” variant. Newspapers echo frequent allegations of 80 horsepower in each of these beasts. By the summer of 1903, Barney Oldfield was a household name. He would fight to keep it that way, for the rest of his life. Oldfield, if nothing else, was dedicated to his own fame.