Barney Oldfield, of Ohio, came into the automobile racing world from the world of bicycle racing. In 1902 Oldfield had never driven an automobile when Tom Cooper, who knew Oldfield’s racing background, recruited him to drive a new automobile engineered by a then unknown engineer - Henry Ford. Oldfield’s first race was a 5 mile race at Grosse Point, near Detroit, MI. Oldfield won the race and a $200 prize and left with the belief that he could go a mile in under a minute, a never before accomplished feat. Over his career, Oldfield would continue to challenge the mile record and to define early American auto racing.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Oldfield was fortunate enough to survive in a very dangerous sport and build a long and storied career as a race car driver. Among Oldfield’s biggest career achievements was winning the “Master Driver of the World” medal for a race in 1914 from Los Angeles to Phoenix.
While many of the early racers were men from families of wealth, like the Vanderbilts, Oldfield did not come into racing with wealth; he built his wealth through racing. When Oldfield first drove the Ford in 1902 his earnings just covered his living expenses. In 1906 Oldfield expected to make $50,000 through racing. Oldfield used his earnings to further his success by investing in fast machines, such as purchasing the Blitzen Benz for $14,000 in 1910. Oldfield also used his wealth on entertaining and purchasing properties in locations including Ohio and Florida.
Oldfield piloted numerous fast cars during his career and he made the cars as famous as he was. Oldfield started in the Ford 999 in 1902 and 1903. He then switched to the Winton Bullet #2, which he drove in his rivalry against W.K. Vanderbilt for 1 mile supremacy. Oldfield then took over piloting a Peerless Green Dragon and 120 horsepower Benz, until 1910 when he acquired Hemery’s record-setting Blitzen Benz. With the Blitzen Benz Oldfield set new records on the beaches of Daytona.
Oldfield had a strong understanding of what was necessary aerodynamically to make a car go fast. In 1904 Oldfield proposed building the car low and focusing on building it for straightaways rather than turns. To avoid wind resistance, Oldfield suggested giving the car a scooped shape so that the driver was inside the car and out of the wind.
However, Oldfield’s career wasn’t all victories and trophies.
In 1904 Oldfield claimed he was done with racing after an accident at the World’s Fair automobile speed contests. After being blinded by the dust from another car, Oldfield lost control of his automobile and crashed through a fence. The accident left two dead, while Oldfield escaped relatively uninjured. Despite his claims of retirement, Oldfield kept racing.
Controversy followed Oldfield throughout his career. Oldfield was suspended multiple times by American Automobile Association, which sanctioned races during the time. Oldfield’s most significant suspension came during 1910-1911 season. In October 1910 Oldfield participated in an unsanctioned head-to-head race against champion boxer Jack Johnson. While Oldfield originally viewed Johnson’s talk about getting into racing as a joke, Oldfield agreed to race Johnson as a way to stop any comments or criticisms. Significant in understanding the race’s historic context is knowing that Johnson was African American while Oldfield was white. Oldfield, much more experienced in racing and more prepared for the race, won easily in the two heat, 5 mile race. Oldfield committed to the race in part because he believed it would be profitable to him; however, for his participation he was forced to sit out a year of participating in AAA sanctioned events.
During his year suspension Oldfield didn’t let anyone forget who he was. At a race in Atlanta in 1910, which Oldfield had entered before he was suspended, Oldfield threatened to get Governor-elect Hoke Smith to represent him and force his entry into the race. At a race in Readville, MA Oldfield drove onto the track during the racing program and drove several miles before he was stopped. At Savannah in 1911 Oldfield got a press pass issued to him under the ruse of covering the race for a local newspaper, but he was subsequently thrown out as being in the press area was a violation of his suspension.
During his racing days Oldfield became interested in tires and understanding how to make tires last and prevent them from being the cause of accidents. When he retired from racing in 1918 he went to Akron, OH to lead Oldfield Tire Company. Just as he found success as a racer, Oldfield found success in the racing tire business. Oldfield’s tires were on the top-3 finishers at the 1920 Indianapolis 500.