Berna Eli “Barney” Oldfield (June 3, 1878 – October 4, 1946) was an automobile racer and pioneer. He was born on a farm on the outskirts of Wauseon, Ohio. He was the first man to drive a car at 60 miles per hour (96 km/h) on an oval. His accomplishments led to the expression “Who do you think you are? Barney Oldfield?”
Oldfield began as a bicycle racer in 1894, winning silver medals and a gold watch. At age 16, in 1894, he entered his first bicycle race and soon officials from Dauntless bicycle factory asked him to ride for the Ohio state championship. Although Oldfield came in second in the race, it was a turning point in his life and he was hired as a parts sales representative for Stearns where he met his future wife, Beatrice Lovetta Oatis who he married in 1896.
By 1896, he was being paid handsomely by the Stearns bicycle factory in Syracuse, New York to race on its amateur team.
Oldfield was lent a gasoline-powered bicycle to race at Salt Lake City, which led to a meeting with Henry Ford. Ford had readied two automobiles for racing, and he asked Oldfield if he would like to test one at Ford’s Grosse Pointe track. Oldfield agreed and traveled to Michigan for the trial, but neither car would start. In spite of the fact that Oldfield had still never driven an automobile, he and fellow racing cyclist Tom Cooper purchased both test vehicles when Ford offered to sell them for $800. One of those first vehicles was the famous “No. 999” which debuted in October, 1902 at the Manufacturer’s Challenge Cup. The car can be found today at the Henry Ford Museum in Greenfield Village.
Oldfield agreed to drive against the current champion Alexander Winton. Oldfield was rumored to have learned how to operate the controls of that car the morning of the event. Oldfield won by a half mile in the five mile (8 km) race. He slid through the corners like a motorcycle racer did instead of braking. It was a great victory for Ford and led both Barney Oldfield and Ford to become household names.
John Wilkinson, who designed an air-cooled engine for Franklin Automobile Company and was their chief engineer, raced against Barney Oldfield in 1902, winning the state 5 miles (8.0 km) championship in the record time of 6:54:6 in a Franklin.
On June 20, 1903, at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indiana, Oldfield became the first driver to run a mile track in one minute flat or 60 miles per hour (97 km/h). Two months later, he drove a mile in 55.8 seconds at the Empire City Race Track in Yonkers, New York. Winton hired Oldfield and agreed to supply free cars in addition to his salary. Oldfield, with his agent Will Pickens, crisscrossed the United States in a series of timed runs and match races, where he earned a reputation as a showman. One year he competed at twenty tracks in 18 weeks while driving for Peerless, and won sixteen straight match races. He frequently raced in three event matches; in one, he won the first part by a nose, lost the second, before he won the third.
Oldfield made a fine showing at the opening of the Indianapolis Speedway (August 19–21, 1909), in a Mercedes.
He bought a Benz, and raised his speed in 1910 to 70.159 mph (112.910 km/h) in his “Blitzen Benz”. Later that year he drove to 131.25 mph (211.23 km/h). He used the car to break the existing mile, two mile (3 km), and kilometer records at the Daytona Beach Road Course at Ormond, Florida. He was able to charge $4000 for each appearance after that.
Suspension and later career
Oldfield was suspended by the AAA for his “outlaw” racing activities and was unable to race at sanctioned events for much of the prime of his career. Speed records, match races and exhibitions made up most of Oldfield’s career. He put on at least 35 shows in 1914 with the aviator Lincoln Beachey. Oldfield raced his Fiat car against Beachey’s aircraft.
He was reinstated and he competed in the 1914 and 1916 Indianapolis 500, finishing fifth in each attempt but becoming the first person in Indianapolis history to run a 100-mile-per-hour lap. His 1914 Indy finish was in an Indianapolis-built Stutz, making him the highest finishing driver in an American car in a race dominated by Europeans. Oldfield used the same car in his victory at the Los Angeles to Phoenix off-road race in November 1914. Oldfield also finished second in two major road races that year, the Vanderbilt Cup and the Corona 300. In 1915 he won the Venice, California 300 road race.
In June 1917 he used his Golden Submarine to beat fellow racing legend Ralph DePalma in a series of 10 to 25-mile (40 km) match races at Milwaukee. He retired from racing in 1918, but he continued to tour and make movies.
In 1932 he tried to re-enter speed record racing again with a new car design he touted in a major magazine article he wrote. But he found no supporters for the venture. That was his last attempt at racing in his life.
Stage and film performances
He starred in the Broadway musical The Vanderbilt Cup (1906) for ten weeks. His movie career included the silent film Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913), where he raced against a train to rescue a heroine tied to the train tracks. He was also featured in The First Auto (1927) as an early pioneer of automotive history. He was a technical advisor for the Vanderbilt Cup sequence in the feature film Back Street (1941). He starred as himself in a racing film titled The Blonde Comet, the story of a young woman trying to achieve success as a race car driver.
Contributions to racing safety
Oldfield worked with Harry Arminius Miller, who developed and built carburetors in Los Angeles and became one of the most famous engine builders in America, to create a racing machine that would not only be fast and durable, but that would also protect the driver in the event of an accident. Bob Burman, one of Oldfield’s top rivals and closest friends, was killed in a wreck during a race in Corona, California. Burman died from severe injuries suffered while rolling over in his open-cockpit car. Oldfield and Miller joined forces to build a race car that incorporated a roll cage inside a streamlined driver’s compartment that completely enclosed the driver (called the “Golden Submarine”).
Barney Oldfield also helped fellow racer Carl G. Fisher found the Fisher Automobile Company in Indianapolis, Indiana, which is believed to be the first automobile dealership in the United States.
He developed the Oldfield tire for Firestone, which helped put Firestone on the map. Firestone used the slogan “‘Firestone Tires are my only life insurance,’ says Barney Oldfield, world’s greatest driver.”
In 1924, the Kimball Truck Co. of Los Angeles, CA, built the only 1924 Oldfield.
He died on October 4, 1946 and was buried in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.