In late October of 1902, just seven years after America's first automobile race (in Chicago), when the lusty new sport was the special plaything of such gentleman drivers as Foxhall Keene and William K. Vanderbilt, a group of men and cars gathered at a Michigan horse track in Grosse Pointe to determine the fastest combination around the mile dirt oval. Automobile manufacturer Alexander Winton was expected to win in his fast Bullet as usual, but when the field roared away an unknown driver, leaning desperately over the tiller bar of Henry Ford's special 999, put on a fantastic display of speed, sliding the dusty turns at full throttle and winning the race over Winton by a decisive margin.
The newcomer was 24-year-old Berna Eli (Barney) Oldfield—and while he had gained a fair reputation as a bicycle racer this was his first try at automotive competition.
Born in a log farmhouse near Wauseon, Ohio in 1878, Barney had quit school at 15 to help support the family. One job quickly followed another: water boy on a railroad gang (at a dollar a day), kitchen helper at an insane asylum, bellhop and elevator operator in Toledo. Finally, after he'd done quite well in a few local bike races, he was offered a position as a "paid amateur" for the Stearns bicycle factory in 1896.
Automobile racing, however, was to claim him wholly after that initial victory at Grosse Pointe in 1902—and his name was soon to become a legend in his own time, a synonym for speed in that restless era at the turn of the century when the motorcar was still a bellowing new infant in America.
His exploits are history now: He was the first American to drive a mile a minute in an automobile; he claimed every world's record from one to 50 miles in the Peerless Green Dragon; he set a new mark (131.724 mph) at Daytona Beach in 1910 in his powerful Lightning Benz; he became the undisputed king of the dirt tracks, winning hundreds of exhibition and match races; he tamed the deadliest racing machine in America, the front-drive Killer Christie, in which he set a new lap record at Indianapolis in 1916 the day before the classic "500." In 1917 he went into semiretirement, the idol of his generation, having competed in over 2,000 events during his fabled career.
WHAT WAS THE TRUTH?
These, then, are the feats he accomplished. But what of the personality behind them; what of the man himself? Was he indeed the brilliant, unbeatable champion that legend paints him?
In truth, Barney Oldfield was not a brilliant driver—and he was often beaten. Ralph De Palma, his bitterest rival, outdrove him on numerous occasions, sometimes in much slower cars. And Oldfield never ranked higher than fourth on AAA yearly championship listings after 1909, generally finishing much lower. For several years he was an "outlaw," banned from AAA events because of his erratic behavior and deliberate rule flouting. During this period he often drove against a pack of his own hired stooges in small tank towns across country, coining as much as $3,000 in a single afternoon. Oldfield's AAA-sanctioned record shows 101 victories, yet only two of these were championship events, and many of the records he claimed were timed by his own clockers. They were not official.
Despite all this, he occasionally displayed great driving prowess. In the European-dominated 1914 Indianapolis 500-mile classic he was the first U.S. driver under the flag, finishing fifth in his Stutz; and in November of that same year he won the grueling three-day Los Angeles to Phoenix Desert Classic over a crack field in an outclassed sprint car geared for short-track racing. At the end of the race Oldfield was awarded a medal studded with diamonds that proclaimed him "Master Driver of the World."
But his actual talent, minor or major, had little to do with the legend that grew around him. Even at his worst he was one of the most colorful figures the sport has ever known, a square-shouldered, loud-talking, lovable, brash ruffian with a strong flair for the dramatic and a canny knowledge of his public. He clenched an unlit cigar stub between his teeth as he drove—and that became one of his famous trademarks. He sent squads of publicity men ahead of him with large circus-type posters flamboyantly announcing the appearance of the "Master Driver of the World." Married four times (twice to the same woman, Bessie Gooby, whom he met while in a St. Louis hospital after one of his many spectacular crashes), he romanced a flock of high-spirited young ladies from New York to San Francisco. He wore gaudy silk neckties and imported suits—cutting a resplendent if somewhat overdressed figure at noisy postrace celebrations.