"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, Michigan, 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.
No single reason can sufficiently explain why in a brief period between 1910 and 1920, nearly half a million Southern Blacks moved from farms, villages, towns and cities to the North, starting what would ultimately be a 50-year migration of millions. What would be known as the Great Migration was the result of a combination of fundamental social, political and economic structural problems in the South and an exploding Northern economy. Southern Blacks streamed in the thousands and hundreds of thousands throughout the industrial cities of the North to fill the work rolls of factories desperate for cheap labor. Better wages, however, were not the only pull that lured migrants north. Crushing social and political oppression and economic peonage in the South provided major impetus to Blacks throughout the South seeking a better life. Detroit, with its automotive and war industries, was one of the main destinations for thousands of Southern Black migrants.
In 1910 Detroit’s population was 465,766, with a small but steadily growing Black population of 5,741. By 1920 post-war economic growth and a large migration of Southerners to the industrialized North more than doubled the city’s population to 993,678, an overall increase of 113 percent from 1910. Most startling, at least for white Detroiters, was the growth of the city’s Black population to 40,838, with most of that growth occurring between 1915 and 1920.
Before the war, Detroit’s small Black community was barely represented in the city’s industrial workforce. World War I production created the demand for larger numbers of workers and served as an entry point for Black workers into the industrial economy. Growing numbers of Southern migrants made their way to Detroit and specifically to Ford Motor Company to meet increased production for military and consumer demands.
By the end of World War I over 8,000 black workers were employed in the city’s auto industry, with 1,675 working at Ford. Many of Ford’s Black employees worked as janitors and cleaners or in the dirty and dangerous blast furnaces and foundries at the growing River Rouge Plant’s massive blast furnaces and foundries. But some were employed as skilled machinists or factory foremen, or in white-collar positions. Ford paid equal wages for equal work, with Blacks and whites earning the same pay in the same posts. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Ford Motor Company was the largest employer of Black workers in the city, due in part to Henry Ford’s personal relationships with leading Black ministers. Church leaders in the Black community helped secure employment for hundreds and possibly thousands, but more importantly, they also helped to mediate conflicts between white and Black workers.
In addition to jobs, Ford Motor Company provided social welfare services to predominantly Black suburban communities in Inkster and Garden City during the depths of the Great Depression. Ford provided housing and fuel allowances as well as low-interest, short-term loans to its employees living in those communities. Additionally, Ford built community centers, refurbished several schools and ran company commissaries that provided inexpensive retail goods and groceries. (You can learn more about the complicated history of Ford and Inkster in The Search for Home.)
Between 1960 and 1990, tracks, drivers and cars combined to create a memorable era in automobile racing, and one of the best-known photograph collections documenting this era is now accessible. Selected images from the Dave Friedman collection are now available for viewing at The Henry Ford’s Flickr page. More than 10,000 images have been uploaded since the beginning of 2012, with many more to come!
During the 1950s and 1960s, American auto racing underwent a radical transformation, evolving from a sport of weekend racers in their home-built hot rods and dragsters to professional teams driving powerful race cars in competitions all over the world. Photographer Dave Friedman had a front row seat for the action during this important transition, capturing the excitement, the grit and the glamour - and creating some of the most iconic images of American motor sports of that era.
In 1962 Friedman was hired as staff photographer for Shelby-American Inc., the racing design and construction shop owned by a former driver, the late Carroll Shelby. While with Shelby-American Inc., Friedman had the unique opportunity to document the development of one of racing’s iconic stable of cars, the Shelby Cobras. In 1965, Friedman continued to capture the dynamic innovations of Shelby and Ford Motor Company as he documented the development of the record-setting Ford Mark IV race car that was the first American-designed and built car to win the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1967 . Friedman continued to pursue his passion for motor sports into the 1990s, when he refocused his lens on a new art form – classical ballet.
In 2009, The Henry Ford acquired the unique collection of this internationally renowned photographer, author and motion picture still photographer. The Dave Friedman collection consists of over 200,000 unique images, including photographs, negatives, color slides and transparencies. The collection also includes programs, race results and notes from across the United States and around the world. Dating between 1949 and 2003, the images and programs illustrate the transition of auto racing from dirt tracks and abandoned airfields to super speedways.
The Dave Friedman collection is a unique resource that documents in subtle shades the art, power and passion of automobile racing in the second half of the 20th century.
What's your favorite moment in automotive racing history? Tell us in the comments below, or check out Racing In America for more details on these iconic races and more.