“Who the hell do you think you are—Barney Oldfield?” That was the motorcycle cop’s standard question for fifty years, and even today you can hear it once in a while if you get caught speeding. Barney Oldfield was not the best driver in that reckless era. But of all the early racing men, only Oldfield became legendary.
Berna Eli Oldfield was born on an Ohio farm in 1878. He began his racing career on a borrowed Royal Flush bicycle in an 1894 cross-country contest coming in second. Two years later he was racing through the Midwest with his Racing Team, billing himself as “The Bicycle Champion of Ohio.”
In the years that followed, Oldfield became a national figure. He drove throughout the country in cars—the Green Dragon, the Golden Submarine, the Killer Christie, the Blitzen Benz - heavy, overpowered monsters with thin, unreliable tires. Oldfield had his share of accidents. Chipping his teeth in one, he thereafter drove with a cigar clenched in his mouth to check the vibrations.
Oldfield was no Sunday school teacher. It was said by his friend of the prizefighter Jim Jeffries, “I did more fighting in saloons getting old Barney out of scrapes than I ever did in the ring.” His popularity remained strong. In 1910 he set a new world speed record of 131.7 miles per hour in the big, chain-driven Blitzen Benz.
Shortly after this triumph, however, he was suspended from events sanctioned by the American Automobile Association. He had defied the organization to run a ludicrous race against Jack Johnson, a fine prizefighter but an inept driver.
Cut off from the big races like Indianapolis, he stayed in the public's eye by barnstorming country fairs with two other drivers who would always ease off at the last minute so that the fans could see their hero win a split-second victory.