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