Barney Oldfield (1878 - 1946)
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Barney Oldfield

Barney Oldfield

Berna Eli Oldfield

Berna Eli 'Barney' Oldfield was a showman, a rich showman. He specialised in short match races, chiefly on dirt-tracks, shortly after the turn of the 20th century, but he was also an accomplished road racer. Perhaps because of his showmanship on the dirt-tracks, his circuit achievements did not receive the recognition due.

In the 1914 Indianapolis 500, for instance, he fought valiantly against tough French opposition in his Stutz and finished fifth, the only American driver of an American car in the first eight. From a poor family in Wauseon, Ohio, Barney Oldfield was born on 3 June 1878, and left school when he was twelve. He later joked that his first 'driving' job was as a lift boy in a hotel.

Bicycle racing became his profession and he won countless events, but in 1902 he had a major break. A fellow cycle-racing friend, Tom Cooper, lent him a petrol-engined vehicle, a tandem racing bike, to race in Salt Lake City, Oldfield's new home town. Several months later, Oldfield heard from Cooper. He and a chap called Henry Ford were building two racing cars - and would Barney like to drive one? He did, and quickly moved east where the cars were under construction.

The Ford 999 and Winton Bullet

Oldfield became famous for his driving of the Ford-built 999 and later the Winton Bullet, the Peerless Dragon and the front-wheel-drive Christie. On Memorial Day 1903, he became the first American to cover a mile in a minute during a match race at the Empire City horse-track in New York, an achievement which gave him nationwide acclaim. He toured the country giving exhibition runs and match races, although exactly how many of these were genuine is not known as he paid his 'opposition', and Bill Pickens, his manager, was in charge of the stop-watches.

Showmanship was his theme and he became famous as an extrovert, cigar-chewing entertainer who used to shout to his fans, 'You know me, I'm Barney Oldfield l' He even played briefly in a theatre in a presentation titled Vanderbilt Cup, when he would rev up his racing car on stage on a treadmill and shower his audience with dirt to give a dusty road effect. By 1908, Oldfield had tired of the fairgrounds and announced his retirement, but the following year saw his return with a German Benz, a 120 hp model.

The Blitzen Benz

In 1910, another Benz - the 200 hp Blitzen model - was used by Oldfield to establish new one-mile, two-mile and kilometre records at Ormond Beach. Even Kaiser Wilhelm sent his congratulations from Germany. Because of his participation in unsanctioned match-races, Oldfield was often under suspension by the American Automobile Association and therefore was ineligible for major road races such as the Indianapolis 500 which was inaugurated in 1911. Late in 1912, however, his suspension was lifted and he was invited to take the late David Bruce-Brown's seat in the Fiat team for the annual Grand Prize at Milwaukee; Oldfield accepted and finished fourth.

The Mercer team signed Barney to drive for them in 1913 (although Mercer's team captain, Ralph DePalma, was angry and walked out) and against the might of the all-conquering French teams. In the 1915 500, he withdrew his Bugatti as it was not quick enough, and the following year he was fifth in a Delage. Other successes included second place in the 1914 Vanderbilt Cup driving a Mercer, second with a Maxwell in the 1914 Corona road race, victory in a Stuz in the 1914 Cactus Derby (a 670-mile road race) and victory in the Venice road race of 1915 driving a Maxwell.

The Green Dragon

In 1917, too old for military service, Oldfield campaigned his final exhibition car, the Green Dragon. This was a Miller-engined device with an enclosed cockpit, and to add to the showmanship Oldfield used to drive it clad in a green leather outfit. He retired from racing in 1918 and formed the Oldfield Tire & Rubber Co which he sold to Firestone four years later; it became, in effect, Firestone's racing division. Barney Oldfield had become a very rich businessman, but he lost heavily in the 1929 Wall Street crash - reportedly in excess of $ 1,000,000 - and became virtually penniless. He appeared in a film about himself and also had ideas of breaking the land-speed record in a special 3000 bhp car to be built by Harry Miller, but this remained a dream. Oldfield ended his days as an automotive consultant and died in Beverly Hills on 6 October 1946.
Barney Oldfield in his famous Golden Submarine, which he used for publicity runs
Barney Oldfield in his famous Golden Submarine, which he used for publicity runs.

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