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.