"You have every sensation of being hurled through space. The machine is throbbing under you with its cylinders beating a drummer's tattoo, and the air tears past you in a gale. In its maddening dash through the swirling dust the machine takes on the attributes of a sentient thing... I tell you, gentlemen: no man can drive faster and live!"
It is June 20, 1903. Barney Oldfield, billed as "America's Premier Driver," has just become the first man in America to drive a gas-powered automobile around a dirt track at — think of it — a mile a minute! Now his agent is telling a group of rube reporters about the thrilling rigors of unimaginable speed. "The chest of a driver is forced in," he says. "Average lungs can't overcome the outward force and the result is like strangulation. Blood rushes to the head, temporary but complete paralysis of mind over body occurs." The thrill of such speeds, and such hype, was not confined to flacks.
A month later Oldfield drove even faster at the Empire City Track in Yonkers, New York, and The Automobile magazine described him taking a curve: "The rear wheels slid sideways for a distance of 50 feet, throwing up a huge cloud of dirt. Men were white-faced and breathless, while women covered their eyes and sank back, overcome by the recklessness of it all."
They named cars in those days; that day Oldfield was driving old 999 — after the record-breaking locomotive on the New York Central line. The car had been designed and built by Henry Ford, an obscure Detroit automaker. Ford had driven 999 himself in a few races, but in 1902 he turned it over to this 24-year-old bike racer from Ohio. It was Barney Oldfield who made Ford a household word. "Race on Sunday, sell on Monday" was the watchword. Of course 999 was nothing like the regular cars Ford made, but they were pretty good, too.
It would be nice to report that the Smithsonian owns 999, but it belongs to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, where it has resided since 1919. But Oldfield, who dominated car racing for ten years, set records in the object at hand, namely a Winton Bullet, one of two owned by the Smithsonian and now on long-term loan to the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum in Cleveland.
Just after the turn of the century the whole world was car-crazy. In the United States, there were scores of automakers, and most of them built for the rich. Ford made history — and a fortune — by building for the masses. In 1908 he came out with the great Model T, a simple machine ("the customer can have any color he wants so long as it's black," he said) that could be fixed with a hacksaw, a hammer and a pair of pliers, and cost $825. His idea was to produce cars that his workers could afford to buy, a radical concept that, some historians say, helped ensure that America would never have a worker-led revolution.
The more you read about the early cars, the more you realize that some of the wind-whistling hype was true — at least driving them was often a very dangerous adventure. Before one early race, 999's engine began to sputter for lack of fuel. Quick as a wink Oldfield cut a hole in the gas tank, stuck in a hose and kept blowing air in as his partner, seizing the tiller, drove all the way around the track. Thereafter, he liked to call himself a human gas pump.
Soon every small boy in the country was copying Oldfield's swagger and round goggles. "We love his grimy, goggled face / His matchless daring in a race," a bit of popular doggerel declared. He used to come to towns for races in his private railroad car. His agent would announce that he would take on all comers at the local horse track, a dirt oval found in almost every village. Suspense built, and finally the great man emerged, cigar clamped in his mouth to cushion the place where he'd broken some molars in a crash. He usually grinned at the crowd, shouted "You know me, Barney Oldfield!" and took off around the track, steering with a tiller, fighting the bumps. Oil from the open crankshaft jetting up in his face, a hurricane of dirt thrown up on his skidding turns. He always won--he had the fastest car, after all, and each time his promoters would claim he'd set a new speed record. The crowd, feeling a part of history, went wild.
This was a time before garages: cars were still kept in carriage houses and stables. Only a fraction of the nation's roads were paved. By 1902, only 909 cars had been registered in all of New York. The first official gasoline-powered auto race in the country had been held in Chicago in 1895, when Frank Duryea's one-cylinder car beat all contenders after a grueling ten-hour, 52-mile trek — average speed 5.1 mph (Smithsonian, September 1994). The first official auto show was held in 1900 at Madison Square Garden, with 31 cars displayed, many of them still steam-powered.
The first Winton Bullet, built in 1902, had four cylinders and a leather clutch-facing that wore out quickly. Pistons were cast iron. Tires blew out with frightening frequency. The second Bullet had eight cylinders: two in-line four-cylinder engines that were bolted together. In 1904 Oldfield drove it 84 mph at Ormond Beach, Florida. These machines were monsters. Bullet No. 1 had cylinders as large in diameter as a coffee can. The 999 had a wooden clutch and a 230-pound flywheel that was two feet across and six inches thick.
August 1903 headline: "A Carnival of Speed at Yonkers' Track." Oldfield drove 64.52 mph. By the end of 1904, Barney Oldfield held most of the dirt track records from one to 50 miles. In a time when a skilled worker made $2 a day, Oldfield once won $650 in a single race; he eventually commanded thousands of dollars just to show up. He set records in a Peerless Green Dragon, a Stutz, a Blitzen Benz, and the Miller Golden Sub — the first enclosed racing car, gilded and shaped like an egg. In 1910 he nudged the Blitzen Benz to 131.25 mph, "fastest ever traveled by a human being," to become "Speed King of the World."
He raced against airplanes. He raced against trains, including once in a Mack Sennett movie where he arrived just in time to save Mabel Normand.
With his agent, the ingenious Will Pickens, Oldfield soon was making money hand over fist. He often sported thousands of dollars' worth of jewelry, including a four-carat diamond pinky ring, and he handed out $5 tips when a dime would do. Once in San Francisco, greeted at the station by a brass band, he invited all 65 musicians to dinner at the Palace Hotel and paid a tab of $845, two years' income for many Americans at the time. He spent thousands in bars, where he gained a scandalous reputation as a brawler. What money he didn't drink up or bet on horses seemed to go for fines posed by the American Automobile Association, which, from 1902, was the self-proclaimed arbiter of all speed records and which insisted on a certain decorum around the tracks.
Officials at the AAA didn't like it either when Oldfield turned actor in 1906 and went onstage on Broadway, revving the Green Dragon on a treadmill. It started a fad: the next year 11 characters in various Broadway plays entered driving a car.
Oldfield finally retired from racing at 40, and with Harvey Firestone's help opened the Oldfield Tire and Rubber Company in Akron. The hangovers were lasting longer, and he kept losing the bar fights, but there was still a race or two in him. In 1927 he averaged 76.4 mph in a 1,000-mile nonstop stock car event at Culver City in California. In 1931 he retreated to a celebrity's retirement in Beverly Hills and watched for years while others broke his records. He died in bed in 1946, at age 68.
There is a story that in old age he was stopped for speeding after a wild chase featuring three motorcycle cops. He watched calmly as the toughest of them strode up.
"Who do you think you are?" the cop snarled at him. "Barney Oldfield?"
By Michael Kernan