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Thursday, Feb. 10, 2005 02:21 pm

The speed demon’s green dragon

Barney Oldfield mugs with a child at the Illinois State Fair dirt track in May 1905. The meet, the first of its kind ever held here, was organized and run under the auspices of the Springfield Automobile Club. Photographer Guy Mathis was a member.

One hundred years ago, automobile racing came to the Illinois State Fair dirt track for the first time when the Springfield Automobile Club sponsored a meet at which the featured driver was the famous Barney Oldfield. By the end of 1905, Oldfield held every dirt-track speed record from one to 50 miles.

Although Oldfield’s name is no longer known to younger people, it once was the very synonym for death-defying courage (some would say foolhardiness) and speed, speed, speed. Forget about these modern-day namby-pamby NASCAR drivers and their trumped-up “outlaw” images (jeesh, they wear seatbelts, for crying out loud!): Oldfield was the original bad boy of racing, living life in the fast lane both on and off the track. He was a drinker, a brawler, a big spender, a shameless self-promoter, and a showman extraordinaire. His high-octane lifestyle helped fuel his advancement from Barney Oldfield the man to Barney Oldfield the legend. Trouble, excitement and controversy followed him wherever he went.

He was born Berna Eli Oldfield in Wauseon, Ohio, on Jan. 29, 1878, and named for his father’s Civil War army buddy from the 68th Ohio Infantry. At age 15, after moving to Toledo, he took a job as a bellhop in a local hotel. Like so many others of that era, he was enthusiastic about the bicycling craze, but he could not afford a bicycle. He discovered, however, that a certain hotel resident kept a bicycle in the hotel’s basement, and he surreptitiously appropriated the two-wheeler for many midnight rides, through which practice he became an expert rider and eventually a professional. It was on the pro circuit that his days of “trading paint” actually began. Professional riders, vying for cash prizes, employed tough tactics to scare novice riders such as Barney (the other bellhops called him that, and it stuck), but he developed a hard-charging style, and with it came success, self-confidence, and ambition. He also developed, by necessity, a knowledge of mechanics. Indeed, some of the best mechanical minds of the day, including Orville and Wilbur Wright, were intent on creating a better bicycle.

Another cyclist, Barney’s friend Tom Cooper, had graduated from bicycles to motorcycles and eventually to a partnership with an unknown mechanic and inventor from Detroit named Henry Ford. Together they built two high-performance racing cars (80 horsepower, one forward speed, no transmission, and a piston displacement of 1,080 cubic inches), but Ford was dissatisfied with their reliability. They needed another mechanic, and Cooper recommended Oldfield as “a man who lives for speed.” Oldfield was offered the job and bought a one-way ticket to Detroit. Once there, he fixed faulty fuel pumps and, with the help of a coppersmith, redesigned the “mixing pot” (ancestor of the carburetor) to deliver the juice needed to win races. Now the team lacked just one thing — a driver. Oldfield leaped at the opportunity, and on Oct. 25, 1902, under a gray sky at the Grosse Pointe horse track, he climbed behind the wheel of an automobile for the first time. With Ford in attendance, Oldfield defeated the reigning auto speed champion, millionaire Scotsman Alexander Winton, in his “Bullet.” Ford sold out of the partnership but, on the basis of the success of the venture, was able to borrow money, and the next month he founded the Ford Motor Co.

In the philosophy of, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” Winton signed Oldfield to a sponsorship deal. It was eventually terminated because, as Winton discovered, scandal followed Oldfield just as surely as the sunrise follows the night. Later on, Harvey Firestone (of the Firestone Tire Co.) was forced to take similar action to protect his good name by distancing himself, and his product, from Oldfield’s rash public pronouncements, barroom brawls, gambling, and general bad behavior. However, it was incontrovertible fact that Oldfield was the greatest figure in the racing game, and he was already known as America’s premier racer when he visited Springfield in the first week of May 1905. The car he drove in Springfield, a Peerless, was actually the Green Dragon II. The first Dragon had been destroyed the previous summer at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis when a blown tire caused a crash that sent Oldfield and his car through a fence, killing a spectator and almost killing him. Besides his many other injuries, Oldfield chipped several teeth, and thereafter he always kept a Cuban cigar clenched firmly in his jaw, even while racing. He cut quite a figure in his specially made driving suit (which was dyed forest green to match the car), green racing goggles, and green leather helmet, and he couldn’t resist waving to the grandstand crowd as he sped down the straightaway. Among his professional accomplishments were many firsts: he was the first man in America to drive a gas-powered auto at more than a mile a minute and was the first man to average better than 100 mph at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. At one time he held the land speed record of 131.7 mph, which he achieved in a Benz on the sand of Daytona Beach.

Oldfield was married four times to three different women (his second wife actually took him back after a 20-year separation). He died peacefully in his sleep on Oct. 4, 1946, in Hollywood, Calif.


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