"You know me, Barney Oldfield," was the classic catchphrase of one of America's earliest celebrity sports figures, and during the nascent period of the automobile, most every American knew Berna Eli Oldfield. He became the best-known racecar driver at a time when the motor buggy was catching the imagination and passion of a rapidly changing society. Oldfield would cut a populist swath across turn-of-the century American society and in the process help define an emerging cult of celebrity.
One of the consistent themes of Oldfield's early life was a restlessness and desire for bigger, brighter, and better things in life. As a teenager, Oldfield worked odd jobs in Toledo, Ohio earning money to buy his own bicycle to ride in local and regional road and endurance races. An attempt at professional boxing ended after contracting typhoid fever and Oldfield returned to racing for company-sponsored bicycle teams and selling parts in the off-season. Throughout the 1890s, Oldfield was part of a team of riders barnstorming across the Midwest and racing in the new "wood bowl" tracks that were sprouting up across the region. Oldfield quickly realized the need to appeal to the audience beyond the track, promoting himself as the "Bicycle Racing Champion of Ohio" and promoting a "keen formula for winning" by wearing a bottle of bourbon around his neck during races but telling reporters the liquid inside was vinegar.
Americans were fascinated with the quirky and expensive auto cars, and the boxy, carriage-like vehicles appealed to American’s desire for new, loud, audacious, and fast entertainments. During the winter of 1899, Oldfield reconnected with an old racing companion, Tom Cooper, who had just returned from England with a motorized two-wheeler (an early motorcycle). Cooper was going to demonstrate the vehicle at a race in Grosse Point, Mich., in October 1901 and asked Oldfield to come along. Cooper and Oldfield were a preliminary exhibition before the main event: a race between local "chauffeur" Henry Ford and the most well-known and successful automobile manufacturer of the day, Alexander Winton.
After the Grosse Point event, Oldfield and Cooper's attempt at mining in Colorado ended in failure and Cooper headed back to Detroit to pursue working with automobiles. Oldfield took the motorized cycle on a circuit of Western bicycle tracks, setting records along the way before returning to Detroit in the fall of 1902 at the request of Tom Cooper to drive his racecar. "The Race" between Cooper's 999, recently purchased from Henry Ford and driven by Oldfield, and Alexander Winton's "Bullet," captured the imaginations of not only Detroit's automotive elite, but the general population as well. When Oldfield piloted the 999 to victory over Winton's sputtering Bullet, the news spread like wildfire across Detroit, the Midwest, and eventually the nation. Beyond the immediate thrill of the race itself, Barney Oldfield, the "everyman" bicycle racer from the heartland, appealed to a much wider, less elite segment of American society rushing to embrace the motor car. As the Detroit News-Tribune reported after the race, "The auto replaced the horse on the track and in the carriage shed. Society sanctioned yesterday's races. And not only society, but the general public, turned out until more than five thousand persons had passed the gatekeepers.” Barney Oldfield became the face of racing for the "general public" and helped to democratize not only racing entertainment, but also automobiles in general, as the vehicles moved out of the carriage house and into backyard sheds.
Over the next 15 years, Barney Oldfield established multiple world speed records and gained notoriety wherever he went. He added an iconic unlit cigar to his racing persona and perfected the roguish image of a daredevil everyman. After a brief stint driving for Winton, Oldfield took the wheel of the Peerless "Green Dragon" and established himself as America's premier driver.
By 1904, Oldfield held world records in the 1, 9, 10, 25, and 50-mile speed categories. In 1907, Oldfield tried his hand at stage acting when he signed on to appear in a new musical called The Vanderbilt Cup. For 10 weeks and a brief road tour, Barney, as himself, raced his old friend Tom Cooper in stationary cars as backdrops whirled behind them and stagehands blew dirt into the front rows of the theater. The following year, Oldfield took on the open road race circuit and quickly added to his legend by sparking a feud with one of the emerging stars of the day, Ralph De Palma. In March 1910, Oldfield added the title "Speed King of the World" to his resume driving the "Blitzen Benz" to an astonishing 131.7 miles per hour on Daytona Beach.
Oldfield flouted the conventions of his time both on and off the track. He was notorious for his post-race celebrations, womanizing, and bar fights. His rebellious streak kept him under the scrutiny of the American Automobile Association, and in 1910, he was suspended for going on with a spectacle race against the heavy weight-boxing champion Jack Johnson, becoming the first true "outlaw" driver. He and his manager set up dates at county and state fairs across the country, holding three-heat matches against a traveling stable of paid drivers. Oldfield padded his reputation by adding an element of drama to these events by losing the first match, barely winning the second, and after theatrical tweaking and cajoling of his engine, winning the third match. During this period, Oldfield also became a product spokesman ("My only life insurance, Firestone Tires") and began racing a fellow showman and aerial barnstormer Lincoln Beachy in matches pitting "the Dare Devil of the Earth versus the Demon of the Skies for the Championship of the Universe."
Towards the end of his driving career, Oldfield made one more splash in the racing world by driving the Harry Miller-built "Golden Submarine" and established dirt-track records from one to 100 miles. In addition, Oldfield drove the Golden Sub in a series of matches on dirt and wood tracks against his old rival Ralph De Palma throughout the 1917 season, eventually winning four out of the seven races. Oldfield retired from competition racing in 1918 after winning two matches in Independence, Missouri. In typical Oldfield fashion, his final race was under suspension by the AAA after he participated in an unsanctioned event at the Michigan State Fairground.
Oldfield continued to keep himself at the fore of America's sports entertainment culture. In addition to ceremonial "referee" jobs at various races, he rubbed elbows with American movie, stage and music stars and continued his rambunctious lifestyle. Between 1913 and 1945, Oldfield appeared in six movies, usually as himself, and also tried his hand as a road tester for Hudson Motor Company, salesman, bartender, club owner and spokesman. Finally, in an attempt to raise funds to build another land-speed racer with Harry Miller, Oldfield staged a publicity and fundraising event by driving an Allis-Chalmers tractor outside Dallas, Texas and reaching a record 64.1 miles per hour.
Fittingly, Barney Oldfield's last public appearance was at the May 1946 Golden Jubilee of the Automobile Industry held in Detroit. Oldfield was fêted for his foundational role in what was then one of the largest industries in the nation. Oldfield shared the main speaker's table with automotive icons including Henry Ford, Ransom Olds, and Frank Duryea and accepted a "trophy of progress" for his role in automotive history. Barney Oldfield passed away in October 1946 having lived “such a life as men should know.”