Barney Oldfield

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Berna Eli Oldfield
Old 5621997670 e746e839de o.jpg
Born (1878-01-29)January 29, 1878
near Wauseon, Ohio
Died October 4, 1946(1946-10-04) (aged 68)
Beverly Hills, California
Resting place
Holy Cross Cemetery
Other names Barney Oldfield
Henry Ford standing beside Oldfield's first car in 1902
At Lakeside Track, April 1907
Barney Oldfield sitting in his Blitzen Benz at Daytona (undated)

Berna Eli "Barney" Oldfield (January 29, 1878 – October 4, 1946) was an American automobile racer and pioneer. He was the first man to drive a car at 60 miles per hour (96 km/h) on an oval.[1] His accomplishments led to the expression "Who do you think you are? Barney Oldfield?"


Early Life[edit]

Berna Eli Oldfield was born in York Township, Fulton County, OH on January 29, 1878. Berna's maternal grandfather, Eli Yarnell made a wooden rocking cradle for him as a gift, which is now housed at the Fulton County Museum in Wauseon, OH. Berna was named after a Civil War bunkmate of his father, Henry Clay (Hank) Oldfield of the 68th OVI.

In the 1880 U.S. Census, Henry Clay (a laborer) and Sarah Oldfield were living in Wauseon, OH with their daughter Bertha and son Berna. The winter of 1889 was difficult for the Oldfields and they moved to Toledo, leaving many family possessions behind with relatives, including an upright grand piano now housed at the Fulton County Museum. Henry took a job at a mental asylum. An 1890 Toledo City Directory shows the Oldfields living there.

In the summer of 1891, during his summer vacation, Berna worked for $1 a day as a waterboy on a railroad construction crew in order to purchase his first bicycle. Legends state that on Sundays, he would spend most of the afternoon at the local Toledo fire station, hoping for the next call. As “mascot,” he was allowed to ride the big red hose wagon, while a pair of horses raced through the streets. Berna worked the following school year “hawking” the Toledo Blade and Toledo Bee newspapers to raise more money.

Berna did not continue his education after the eighth grade in 1892, and started working with his father as a kitchen helper at the mental asylum during the day and a bell hop at the Boody House in downtown Toledo at night. He felt uneasy around the mental patients, and eventually worked at the hotel full-time. The bell captain at the Boody House was said to have told him that “Berna” was a sissy name, so “Barney” then became his official name. With his magnetic personality, Barney received many tips and was able to finally buy his first bike, an "Advance Traveller" with pneumatic tires. However, the bike was too heavy for speed racing.

Bicycle racer[edit]

Clarence Brigham, who sold the “Cleveland” brand bike, and Edward G. Eager (Eager & Green Mercantile) who sold the “Columbia” models in his store, organized the Wauseon Cycle Club to increase sales and draw more people to town on the NYC’s Michigan Lakeshore RR. Other cycling groups in Swanton, Clyde, Monroe, Adrian, Blissfield and Toledo were part of the same cycle racing circuit. Half mile and mile classes were raced on public tracks usually used for horses. The Northwestern Ohio Fair Co. had built a fairground on North Ottokee Street near Barney's Grandmother Yarnell’s house in 1883, but the fair had dwindled by 1891. This track became the location of the Wauseon Cycle Club’s races. Other members of the group were, Fred Ballmeyer, Ora Brailey, Curt and Buff Harrison, Doc. Myers, Emil Winzeler, Doc Miley, Frank Harper, Dan Raymond (who fixed everyone’s bikes), Sid Black (a trick cyclist from Cleveland who later became president of the Packard Motor Co.) and Barney Oldfield. In October of 1892, the second “Silver Tournament” was held in Wauseon, OH.

In the fall of 1893, Barney’s next job was at the Monticello Hotel. He became the elevator operator and nightly took hotel tenant R. D. Merrill’s lightweight "Cleveland" cycle to storage in the hotel basement, and ended up "borrowing it" and racing it through the streets of Toledo at night.

Oldfield began as a bicycle racer in 1894, winning silver medals and a gold watch.[2] 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 the Stearns bicycle factory, where he met his future wife, Beatrice Lovetta Oatis, whom he married in 1896.[3]

By 1896, he was being paid handsomely by Stearns in Syracuse, New York to race on its amateur team.[2]

Auto racer[edit]

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.[4] 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.[5]

On June 20, 1903, at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis, Oldfield became the first driver to run a mile track in one minute flat or 60 miles per hour (97 km/h).[6] Two months later, he drove a mile in 55.8 seconds at the Empire City Race Track in Yonkers, New York.[7] Winton hired Oldfield and agreed to supply free cars in addition to his salary. Oldfield, with his manager Ernest Moross and front-man 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.[8]

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.[2]

Suspension and later career[edit]

Oldfield racing against Lincoln Beachey

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. It was his last attempt at racing in his life.[9]


Oldfield died on October 4, 1946 and was buried in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.[10]

Stage and film performances[edit]

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[edit]

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").

Business ventures[edit]

Barney Oldfield also helped fellow racer Carl G. Fisher found the Fisher Automobile Company in Indianapolis. It is believed to have been the first automobile dealership in the United States.[11]

Barney Oldfield tire ad from 1922.

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."[12]

In 1924, the Kimball Truck Co. of Los Angeles, CA, built the only 1924 Oldfield.[13]

Indy 500 results[edit]


  • In 1953, Oldfield was among the first 10 pioneers of auto racing to be "enshrined in Auto Racing's Hall of Fame."[14]

Other honors[edit]

Oakshade Raceway in Oakshade, Ohio, near Oldfield's birthplace, holds an annual Barney Oldfield race.


  • "Barney Oldfield: The Life And Times Of America's Legendary Speed King"; William F. Nolan; ISBN 978-1-888978-12-4


  1. ^ Kernan, Michael (May 1998). "Wow! A Mile a Minute!". Smithsonian magazine. Retrieved July 5, 2009. 
  2. ^ a b c Barney Oldfield, International Motorsports Hall of Fame, 1990
  3. ^ Barney Oldfield. The Gale Group, Inc., a division of Thomson Learning, Inc., 2004. Retrieved January 14, 2011. 
  4. ^ Barney Oldfield, University of Virginia, Retrieved January 23, 2008
  5. ^ "Local Autos Once Sold Widely". Syracuse Journal (Syracuse, New York). March 20, 1939. 
  6. ^ "The First Mile-A-Minute Track Lap". Retrieved July 5, 2009. 
  7. ^ Barney Oldfield, Rumbledrome
  8. ^ Burchard, Marshall. Auto Racing Highlights, Garrard Publishing Co., 1975).
  9. ^ "Six Miles Per Minute Seen By Master Driver" Popular Mechanics, August 1932
  10. ^ "Barney Oldfield, Ex-Racer, Is Dead. Pioneer Auto Driver Was First to Travel a Mile a Minute. Retired From Track in 1918. Daredevil of His Day Steered By Handles. Set Mark in Florida.". New York Times. October 5, 1946. Retrieved 2008-05-10. Berna Eli (Barney) Oldfield, the nation's pioneer auto racer, died today at his home here. 
  11. ^
  12. ^ Barney Oldfield, Ohio History Central, July 1, 2005
  13. ^ Old Cars, August 8, 1978. Motor West, June 1, 1924. Long Beach Press, 1924. Long Beach Telegram, 1924.
  14. ^ The Detroit Free Press. February 19, 1953.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]