Thank You, Barney Oldfield, for Making Motorsports and Racing Popular in America… By the Way, You Kinda’ Remind Me of Paul Newman

NASCAR drivers today enjoy the money and fame that come with being athletes in one of the world’s most popular sports, but not without the efforts of the nameless many who came before them and those who survive in posterity on the walls and in the halls of museums and national memory.  Just like the NFL had its first heroes who helped bring football into the national spotlight and were instrumental in its supplanting baseball as the national pastime by the early 1960s (Vince Lombardi, George S. Halas, Jim Thorpe, Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas, and Ernie Davis easily come to mind), NASCAR and American racing in general had its pioneers as well.  The particular athlete I write about today not only helped make American motor sports popular, but also played a vital role in making a certain American car manufacturer a household name.  Barney Oldfield’s exploits set the pace that others would follow in the decades to come, and Jacque Passino, Ford’s Chief of Performance at the time, poignantly said of Fred Lorenzen at his retirement from NASCAR Grand National competition in 1967 that “no man since Barney Oldfield has contributed more to the performance image of Ford.”  In the end, the race car driver helps not only the sport of racing, but also the auto manufacturer itself.

This week, we will take a look at the career of one of the most influential and important race car drivers in American history, Berna Eli “Barney” Oldfield.  Like in my previous article, I will use Mark D. Howell’s From Moonshine to Madison Avenue: A Cultural History of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series for supporting facts.  As you read this article, compare Oldfield’s career to that of Paul Newman – there are many similarities.

Barney Oldfield’s success in the early half of the 20th century was a catalyst in Henry Ford’s success in business.  Ford followed Alexander Winton’s example of using motorsports to sell his cars and built the Ford 999 to compete with Winton’s “Bullet,” and it was Oldfield who piloted the 999 into racing history.  Racing cars straight out of the factory did not yield the results Ford expected, however, and with nearly 40 other manufacturers in America at the time, feuds and rivalries emerged from the dust clouds on the racecourse.  In efforts to construct cars that would win at speed record runs and even hill climbs, each manufacturer worked on designing high performance machines without regard for fairness.  Early sanctioning bodies like the AAA tried standardizing sets of rules, but it was not until the creation of NASCAR in 1947-48 that stock car racing – which up to that point consisted of running factory built cars with modified engines under the hood – in America was organized by a powerful governing entity.

As I stated last week, Barney Oldfield was America’s first popular race car driver.  Since he climbed into his Ford 999 and pushed it to its limits on numerous tracks throughout the first decade of the 20th century, Oldfield became a celebrity.  As an avid bicycle racer, he had never driven a car until his association with Ford, according to Howell.  Oldfield first gripped the steering wheel of his 999 in competition on a racecourse on 23 October, 1902.  Following him were several other cars, including the world’s fastest automobile, Alexander Winton’s “Bullet.”  He won against a field consisting of many seasoned drivers and competitors, and this early success instantly gained him celebrity status.  Only 2 months later, Oldfield “was breaking records set by Winton’s Bullet,” according to Howell, making the Ford 999 America’s fastest automobile.  His success firmly placed Oldfield and the Ford 999 at the center of American popular culture.  Oldfield’s bravery behind the wheel of this new technology captivated the minds and hearts of those who learned of his exciting accomplishments on the racecourse.

He would soon leave the Ford 999 for other more sophisticated machines that produced more power and speed.  On his way to becoming America’s greatest driver, Oldfield continued to break speed records and affirmed that as long as a car was built with careful attention to detail and used the best technology, it was capable of testing man’s limits as talented drivers turned the wheel and pushed the pedals at even greater speeds.  He raced against some of the richest Americans of the time, including William K. Vanderbilt and Henry L. Bowden.  Howell also mentions that by 1910, Oldfield had gained fame in Germany and was hired to drive the Blitzen Benz at Ormond Beach right through old speed records he set before in other machines.  As he piloted automobile technology at breakneck speeds through more and more records, cars became faster and more dangerous.  One of NASCAR’s primary duties was to implement and enforce measures that would protect drivers involved in competition.  It may be inferred that risks Oldfield took in the early days of stock car racing and his success made cars safer for not only competitors, but those who purchased cars from dealerships around the nation.

Barney Oldfield became a sports hero, media celebrity, and cultural icon.  His manager and press agent, William Hickman “Will” Pickens, helped build Oldfield’s image in the eyes of newspaper and magazine readers all over America.  His experiences on the track even took him to Hollywood.  For about 35-40 years, he starred in musicals and racing movies, and in 1913, Mack Sennett produced the first movie that featured Oldfield as the main character on the silver screen.  Like today’s drivers, Oldfield became a celebrity because of his natural talents and learned skills.  He was not born into money, as his father was a Civil War veteran and his mother a blacksmith’s daughter: his was quite the working-class family.  Howell asserts that Oldfield was a “professional athlete who took his place within American popular folklore.”  One finds the prelude to his becoming a folk hero in Homer C. George’s observation, in which he states that Oldfield was “of sturdy but humble farming parentage, in a little loghouse three miles from Wauseon, Fulton County, Ohio.”  These are images so close to the American heart and they run parallel to traditional American symbolism.  Howell even goes so far as to say that Oldfield’s “personal story seems to have been torn from the pages of a Horatio Alger story.”  He also concludes that Oldfield’s story fits this stereotype as well as Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Boone’s histories.  All three stories are told from rural American landscapes and romanticize the rural experience; furthermore, they underscore the strong work ethic and individualism that highlight the American identity.

In 1996, driver Jimmy Spencer was featured on This Week in NASCAR in an interview held on the grounds of the Motorsports Hall of Fame and Museum in Novi, Michigan.  Mark D. Howell spoke to him of Oldfield prior to the show’s taping and how he made Ford famous, “and Spencer smiled and replied, ‘Barney Oldfield… I know that name.  I’ve heard of him.'”  Certainly, Oldfield set the pace that all drivers and motorsports in America follow today.

As Howell so beautifully says of Oldfield, “he was an ordinary man with extraordinary talents.”  Thank you, Barney Oldfield.

Cam Suarez-Bitar.

I would like to thank Mr. Ric Johnson for his comment last week.  It motivated me to write this article and examine Oldfield’s career a little further.  Second, Mark D. Howell has my greatest thanks, for without his book, I would not possess the knowledge I have today of NASCAR and its history.  To anyone who would like to learn more about Barney Oldfield, Fred Lorenzen, and the history of NASCAR, I sincerely recommend Howell’s book, From Moonshine to Madison Avenue: A Cultural History of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Lastly, as always, thank you for your readership and participation.

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