Elsie Saw Barney Oldfield at the Arizona State Fair 1914

15 Jul

Elsie wrote her father that it was reported that 50,000 people were in Phoenix for the Arizona State Fair in 1914.  She commented about the exciting auto races with Barney Oldfield. Reading about Oldfield I discovered he was quite the character. Barney Oldfield started his career as a racer on a bicycle, but everything changed in 1902 when he was hired to drive automobiles for a little known automaker out of Detroit. Henry Ford had driven his 999 for himself in a race or two, but soon decided that he felt safer just making the cars. He needed someone else with the sheer grit and daring needed to drive his car at high speeds, and 24 year old Barney Oldfield was the man for the job. After seeing the 999 for the first time, Oldfield told Ford, “But I’ve never driven a car.” Inexperienced as he was, Oldfield is rumored to have learned the controls of the car the morning of his first race, and by the end of the day he had defeated what was thought to be the world’s fastest car, the Winton bullet. He defeated all the competitors by at least half a mile in a five mile race. Barney Oldfield made a name for himself that day as a fearless and exciting driver, and he also put his sponsor, Henry Ford, on the map and on his way to becoming the most prominent American automaker of all time. Soon Barney Oldfield was a household name and was racing cars all over the country, setting speed records left and right. Oldfield was the first ever to drive around a mile track in less than a minute. By 1910 he achieved a speed of 131.25 mph, then considered the, “fastest ever traveled by a human being.” Oldfield traveled around America with his shrewd agent Will Pickens from town to town with the carnivals, issuing an open challenge to anyone brave enough to race him. Oldfield was the first American to become a celebrity solely for his ability to drive a car with great skill, speed, and daring. Racing became very lucrative for Oldfield, and by his career’s end he could command at least a thousand dollars just to show up for a race. All this was at a time when Henry Ford’s 5$ a day wage was considered incredibly high.

Oldfield also starred in several movies, including a 1913 silent film called
Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life, in which he races a train in order to
save heroine Mabel Normand, who has been tied to the tracks by the villain
played by Rod Sterling. Of course, Oldfield saves the day due to his ability to
drive his automobile with such great speed. Historian Mark Howell notes that,
“Perhaps there is something symbolic in the fact that Barney Oldfield outraced a
locomotive in this film, as though the automobile, by 1913, had exceeded the
railroad in terms of American importance”

One Response to “Elsie Saw Barney Oldfield at the Arizona State Fair 1914”

  1. Rita Covalt July 15, 2012 at 12:39 pm #

    Remarkable account of Barney Oldfield. I had heard the name but didn’t know much about him. This has been very enlightening, Barb. You’ve done a great job of research and reporting!

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