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.
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.
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.
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.