Barney Oldfield

Daredevil and Showman

Barney Oldfield started his career as a racer on a bicycle, but everything changed in 1902 when he was hired to drive automobiles for a little known automaker out of Detroit. Henry Ford had driven his 999 for himself in a race or two, but soon decided that he felt safer just making the cars. He needed someone else with the sheer grit and daring needed to drive his car at high speeds, and 24 year old Barney Oldfield was the man for the job. After seeing the 999 for the first time, Oldfield told Ford, "But I've never driven a car." Inexperienced as he was, Oldfield is rumored to have learned the controls of the car the morning of his first race, and by the end of the day he had defeated what was thought to be the world's fastest car, the Winton bullet. He defeated all the competitors by at least half a mile in a five mile race. Barney Oldfield made a name for himself that day as a fearless and exciting driver, and he also put his sponsor, Henry Ford, on the map and on his way to becoming the most prominent American automaker of all time.

Soon Barney Oldfield was a household name and was racing cars all over the country, setting speed records left and right. Oldfield was the first ever to drive around a mile track in less than a minute. By 1910 he achieved a speed of 131.25 mph, then considered the, "fastest ever traveled by a human being." Oldfield traveled around America with his shrewd agent Will Pickens from town to town with the carnivals, issuing an open challenge to anyone brave enough to race him. Oldfield was the first American to become a celebrity solely for his ability to drive a car with great skill, speed, and daring. Racing became very lucrative for Oldfield, and by his career's end he could command at least a thousand dollars just to show up for a race. All this was at a time when Henry Ford's 5$ a day wage was considered incredibly high. Soon this wealthy racing phenomenon was living a truly extravagant lifestyle, hanging out with the most elite crowd and showing up for races in his own private railway car. At the time when Oldfield was racing, only a small segment of the population could afford automobiles, and being a race car driver placed him among the highest class in society. As we will see later, racing would not remain such a high class pursuit.

Barney Oldfield relished the fame that racing brought him, and soon he was moving from the race track onto the big screen and the Broadway stage. Oldfield played in a Broadway musical entitled The Vanderbilt Cup with co-star Elsie Janis and toured with the show for ten weeks. Oldfield also starred in several movies, including a 1913 silent film called Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life, in which he races a train in order to save heroine Mabel Normand, who has been tied to the tracks by the villain played by Rod Sterling. Of course, Oldfield saves the day due to his ability to drive his automobile with such great speed. Historian Mark Howell notes that, "Perhaps there is something symbolic in the fact that Barney Oldfield outraced a locomotive in this film, as though the automobile, by 1913, had exceeded the railroad in terms of American importance" (Howell 229). Oldfield himself and his huge celebrity status is indicative of a culture fascinated with automobiles and with pushing the limits of their potential. However, what made Oldfield special is that he could win lots of races even when he didn't have the fastest car due to his great skill behind the wheel.

Oldfield was a showman both on and off the track. On the track, in a best of three heat race, Oldfield was known to win the first heat by a nose, then lose the second on purpose, only to add drama to the final heat in which he would clinch the victory. Although somewhat artificial, Oldfield sought to give his fans some excitement when they came to watch him race. Drivers today are still just as eager to please their fans, though today's competition is much tougher than in Oldfields day, and toying with your opponents is no longer an option even for the best racers. Oldfield's career spans the time during which auto-racing went from being a fascinating novelty and wonder of technology to becoming a respectable, organized sport. Oldfield also was the first to have the outlaw image as a driver, facing numerous suspensions from the AAA (American Automobile Association), which attempted to govern most early racing events. Oldfield was a rowdy character known to get into plenty of barfights, and had an off-the-track reputation much like that of Babe Ruth off the ball field. Oldfield, sadly enough, also had a good part in keeping blacks out of auto-racing. Oldfield raced champion African-American boxer Jack Johnson with the primary goal of proving the superiority of the white race, especially in auto racing, since the heavyweight boxing champ was African American. Racing has remained almost a totally white sport ever since. All in all, Oldfield left future stock car racers with the legacy of being daredevils, but also for those crazy enough to risk their lives racing cars, he left the hope of earning a great deal of money and fame.

Henry Ford: Barney, I made you and you made me.
Oldfield's reply: No, Henry, old 999 made us both.

Oldfield: You have every sensation of being hurled through space. The machine is throbbing under you with its cylinders beating a drummer's tatoo, and the air tears past you in a gale...I tell you gentlemen: no man can drive faster and live!

Common question of speed violators: "Who do you think you are, Barney Oldfield?"

Oldfield: The chest of a driver is forced in. Average lungs can't overcome the outward force and the result is like strangulation. Blood rushes to the head, temporary but complete paralysis of mind over body occurs.

Oldfield Photo Gallery


Barney Oldfield Junior Johnson Dale Earnhardt