A scrappy and reckless farm boy from Ohio became America's most legendary race car driver, and his widely publicized victories in Henry Ford's racing cars helped the aspiring entrepreneur launch Ford Motor Company
“Who the hell do you think you are—Barney Oldfield?” That was the motorcycle cop’s standard question for fifty years, and even today you can hear it once in a while if you get caught speeding. For Oldfield’s name still holds the dim thunder of the huge, primitive racing cars that slammed through the dust at the murderous dirt-track meets of the turn of the century. Barney Oldfield was not the best driver in that reckless era; his rival, Ralph De Palma, for instance, handled a car better. But of all the early racing men, only Oldfield became legendary. No cop ever asked, “Who the hell do you think you are—Ralph De Palma?”
Berna Eli Oldfield was born on an Ohio farm in 1878. Like many of the boys who were growing up in the 1890’s, he became infected with the cycling craze, and he began his racing career on a borrowed Royal Flush bicycle in an 1894 cross-country contest. He came in second. Two years later he was barnstorming through the Midwest with his Racycle Racing Team, billing himself as “The Bicycle Champion of Ohio.”
Oldfield was shifting his allegiance to motorcycles by 1902, when he received a letter from an old cyclist friend named Tom Cooper. Cooper had recently abandoned the sport to help a mechanic named Henry Ford—who was trying to grub up enough money to start a motor company—build a pair of racing cars. The cars were taking shape, and Cooper wanted Barney to come to Detroit and lend a hand.
Cooper was supposed to be Ford’s driver, but in fact no one was anxious to handle the cars. They were nothing but engine and frame, steered by handle bars, with exposed crankshafts that sprayed oil over the driver. Oldfield was enchanted by them. He begged for a chance to try one, was given the “999” (named after the New York Central’s famous locomotive), and took it around the mile-long Grosse Point track in slightly over a minute. He was immediately chosen to drive in an upcoming race against the champion Alexander Winton in his favored car, the Bullet. “Well,” Oldfield’s biographer William Nolan quotes the fledgling driver as saying, “this damn chariot may kill me, but they will say afterward that I was goin’ like hell when she took me over the bank!” And sure enough, to the astonishment of everyone but Oldfield, the Ohio cyclist boomed past Winton’s machine to win the five-mile race.
The ensuing publicity got Ford the financial backing to start his company. It also launched Oldfield’s career. The next spring he rammed the 999 around a mile track in 59 and 4/5 seconds, becoming the first man in America to drive a gas-powered car a mile a minute. A month later he shaved four seconds off his record. As The Automobile magazine told it: “…Oldfield with a roar like unto a passing comet, skidded around the far turn and flashed past the howling, horn-tooting crowd…in an exhibition that caused the whole great crowd to gulp and gasp. Men were white-faced and breathless, while women covered their eyes.…When the judges hung out 55/2seconds as the time the riot of sound broke loose afresh.”
In the years that followed, Oldfield became a national figure. He drove throughout the country in cars with wonderful names—the Green Dragon, the Golden Submarine, the Killer Christie, the Blitzen Benz. The automobiles were heavy, overpowered monsters with thin, unreliable tires, and Oldfield had his share of accidents. He chipped his teeth in one, and thereafter drove with a cigar clenched in his mouth to check the vibrations. The cheroot became his most enduring trademark.
He made a great deal of money in those days, but always spent it faster than it came in. He was arrogant, boastful, and he drank. His friend the prize fighter Jim Jeffries said, “I did more fighting in saloons getting old Barney out of scrapes than I ever did in the ring.” Once, Oldfield showed up at a track with a hangover so blinding that he drove his car through the fence on the first turn.
But his popularity remained strong. In 1910 he set a new world speed record of 131.7 miles per hour in the big, chain-driven Blitzen Benz, and left this rich description of the run: “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…I approached the verge of unconsciousness. Then I shut her down, knowing I had traveled faster than any other human on earth.” Kaiser Wilhelm sent him a personal telegram: I CONGRATULATE A DARING YANKEE ON SO REMARKABLE A PERFORMANCE IN A GERMAN CAR .
Shortly after this triumph, however, he was suspended from events sanctioned by the American Automobile Association after he had defied the organization to run a ludicrous race against Jack Johnson, a fine prize fighter but an inept driver. Cut off from the big races, he kept before the public by barnstorming country fairs with two other drivers who would always ease off at the last minute so that the fans could see their hero win a split-second victory.
Oldfield was eventually readmitted to the AAA. He still drove hard, and he often won races. But he was slowing down. Finally, in 1918, he retired.
His happiest days were behind him now. He promoted Firestone tires for a while, but he drank too much, and the job was gently taken away from him. He lost all his money in the stock market, went through a succession of stormy marriages, and, ironically, spent some time giving lectures on auto safety for the Plymouth Motor Corporation. He took to hanging around in bars, cornering customers and asking forlorn questions: Did they remember when he crashed at Corona in 1913? Did they remember when he won the 1914 Cactus Derby? They almost never did.
Barney Oldfield died in 1946 of a cerebral hemorrhage. It was not the end he would have chosen. “If I go,” he had once said, “I want it to be in the Blitzen Benz, or a faster car if they ever build one, with my foot holding the throttle wide open. I want the grandstand to be crowded and the band playing the latest rag. I want them all to say, as they file out the gate, ‘Well, old Barney—he was goin’ some!’”