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Barney Oldfield

Oldfield's Legacy To The Sport

Because automobiles at the time were handmade and thus very expensive, most owners were extremely wealthy. Automobile clubs catered to this clientele, with selective membership policies; most owners and drivers were millionaires. The sport was well on its way to becoming the province of the rich, much like yachting or polo. Very few drivers came from the working class, and those who did, such as famed racer Ralph DePalma, did all they could to make the wealthy owners of their cars feel comfortable. DePalma, for example, wore the clothing of a chauffeur, and gave the owner of the car credit for his victories.

Oldfield, on the other hand, refused to wear uniforms, chewed cigars while he drove, and was not particularly loyal to sponsors—if a better offer came along, he took it. He talked loudly, swore often, spent time in bars, and did not show extra respect to the rich. He also took his machines, named the Blitzen Benz, the Green Dragon, the Golden Submarine, and others—out to county fairs and other venues and gave rural people a show they would never forget. Messer Kruse wrote, "For many Oldfield's cars were not the first they had ever seen, but they were the first they had ever seen driven by someone they could recognize as one of their own."

Awards and Accomplishments

1903 Indiana Fairgrounds one mile dirt track, first circular mile under 60 seconds in US :59.6
1903 Columbus, OH, five mile exhibition, :05:00.6
1904 World's Records made in Peerless Green Dragon II: 1 mi.:00:51.2 70 mph; 5 mi.:04:30.0 66.5 mph; 10 mi.:09:12.0 65.0 mph; 15 mi.:14:05.0 63.7 mph; 20 mi.:18:45.4 64 mph; 25 mi.:23:38.6 63.2 mph; 30 mi.:28:38.8 62.9 mph; 35 mi.:33:36.6 62.2 mph; 40 mi.:38:31.6 62.4 mph; 45 mi.:43:29.0 62.4 mph; 50 mi.:48:39.2 62 mph
1909 Indianapolis, IN, Indianapolis 2 1/2 mi.Macadam Motor Speedway (Inaugural)—1 mi.speed trial, :43.0, in a Benz
1910 Daytona-Ormond Beach, FL, 1 mi.straightaway record, :27.33, in a Blitzen Benz; 5 mi.straightaway record, in a Blitzen Benz
1912 Cleveland, OH, 2 mi.track, :1:35.8, in a Christie
1913 Bakersfield, CA, dirt track, 1 mile in :46.4, in a Christie
1916 Indianapolis, IN, Brickyard Record: first over 100mph at Indy, in a Christie
1917 St. Louis, Missouri, 1 mi.dirt track noncompetitive speed records: 1 mi.:00:45.00, 80 mph; 2 mi.:01:30.40, 79.5 mph; 3 mi.:02:17.60, 78.5 mph; 4 mi.:03:05.60, 77.5 mph; 5 mi.:03:53.60, 77.2 mph; 10 mi.:07:56.20, 75.5 mph; 15 mi.:12:00.80, 75.0; 20 mi.:15:52.20, 75.5 mph; 25 mi.:19:57.60, 75.4 mph; 25 mi.:19:57.60, 75.4 mph; 50 mi.:40:47.60, 73.5 mph
1990 Inducted into Motorsports Hall of Fame

How It Feels to Drive Under the Minute on a Circular Track

It doesn't thrill me a bit to drive a 1:05 clip, and though I might win races without having to drive under the minute, I just have to let it out to get another thrill. You just clamp your teeth on your cigar and get down to your work so that you know to an inch how much the car will swing on the turns, and you get more fun out of the ride than a whole stand full of people.

I haven't any mania for speed, and I don't lose my head and do the mad-man act or anything like that, but I do like to feel the car jump and feel the power of being able to guide the machine so nicely, no matter how quick the turns come.

My car is so well balanced and I know it so well, that I know just how to take those skids. A little too much turn of the front wheels would throw the back wheels out so far that the car would not right itself; then there would be something doing.

Source: Barney Oldfield, interviewed in Automobile. August 1, 1903, p. 116.

Naturally, the members of the racing elite were offended, and tried to exclude Oldfield from racing.

Knowing that Oldfield's strength was in fast skidding turns, they organized straightaway races where skill did not matter, as well as road races that simply favored the fastest machine, not the best driver. They also created racing rules that excluded Oldfield from competitions because he had broken these rules—for example, in 1911 he was barred from the famed Vanderbilt Cup races because he had raced in unofficial exhibitions at county fairs. In 1912 he was banned for life from the Indianapolis Brickyard because he had given an exhibition race against his partner Bob Burman. Burman, who also participated in the race, was not banned.

Oldfield was reinstated at Indianapolis in 1914, and his best finishes there were fifth in 1914 and 1918. In addition, he was the first driver in Indianapolis history to complete a lap at 100 miles per hour.

However, when Oldfield retired from competition in 1918 and became manager of the Firestone racing team, the A.A.A. refused to let him enter a track even if his own team was racing. Eventually he was reinstated, but by then he had lost many opportunities.

As Messer-Kruse noted, the officials of the A.A.A. had also lost opportunities, although they never realized it. At the time, most Americans viewed cars as dangerous, frightening machines, playthings of the rich. Many drivers were cursed at, had stones thrown at them, or were forced off the road by horse-drawn farm wagons. In addition, many communities passed impossibly low speed limits, intended to keep automobiles out. MesserKruse commented, "The millionaires in control of the A.A.A. never understood that Oldfield was the best weapon they had to batter down popular resistance to the growth of their sport." Oldfield was so well-known that police officers arresting speeders often asked, "Who do you think you are, Barney Oldfield?"—which, as Messer-Kruse wrote, made Oldfield "clearly someone who struck a chord with the common folk."

On May 10, 1946, Oldfield died in his sleep, apparently of a heart attack; the evening before, he had complained of neck pains. He is buried in Beverly Hills, California.

In 1990, Oldfield was inducted into the Motor Sports Hall of Fame. Driving at speeds almost unheard of at the time, Barney Oldfield was a pioneer and one of the fathers of modern racing.

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