Barney Oldfield


© History Oasis

Barney Oldfield, the pioneering early 20th century race car driver.

Tracing Oldfield's journey from his origins as a gritty bicyclist to becoming a household name synonymous with death-defying speed behind the wheel.

Alongside his daring exploits, we will highlight Oldfield's forward-thinking approach on issues like safety as well as his crossover into early Hollywood films and advertising.


Barney Oldfield racing a bike
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Though he made his name as one of the most daring race car drivers of the early 20th century, Barney Oldfield's origins were decidedly more modest.

Born Berna Eli Oldfield in 1878, few could have expected that the unassuming boy from Ohio would grow up to become a household name synonymous with death-defying speed.

Oldfield's first encounters with racing came on two wheels rather than four.

As a teenager, he found work as a bellhop to fund his passion for bicycling.

He soon gained regional renown on the cycling circuit for his grit and competitive fire. While less financially lucrative than automobile tournaments, these early cycling clashes gave Oldfield his first taste of intense head-to-head racing.

By 1902, Oldfield’s biking exploits had captured the attention of Henry Ford.

Though Ford's early automobile prototypes showed promise, they lacked the finesse and power to best the era's top mechanics on the track.

Yet the young Ford saw untapped potential in the fearless cyclist. He invited Oldfield to take his motorized creations for a spin. Oldfield agreed, marking a pivotal turn in his career.

Once behind the wheel, Oldfield found himself as at home with four tires as he had been with two.

He quickly grasped the essentials of piloting Ford’s temperamental vehicles, compensating for their limitations with equal parts skill, guts and showmanship.

Later that year, Oldfield made headlines by trouncing legendary racer Alexander Winton and driving home a paradigm-shifting victory for Ford.  

In the decades that followed, Barney Oldfield became a legend in his own right behind the wheel.

But like many pioneers, he never forgot his early days grinding through the cycling circuit that set the stage for greater glory down the road.

With each new speed record, he continued building on the foundation of competitive spirit and perseverance that those first cycling forays had instilled.

Though much changed for Oldfield after 1902, the values that defined him behind handlebars and gears endured as his fame accelerated on four wheels.


Barney Oldfield winning a the 60 second record
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In the early 20th century, automotive speed records captured the public's imagination, conjuring images of death-defying daredevils cheating danger with each mile per hour gained.

While racers constantly dreamed of higher velocities, most believed the 60 mile-per-hour mark on a circular track would long remain unattainable. The steering and tire technology of the day simply wouldn't allow it, or so the experts thought.

Enter Berna Eli "Barney" Oldfield in 1902, an brash young Ohioan known for wringing every last ounce of speed out of his vehicles through sheer grit and determination.

Having cut his teeth on the cycling circuit, Oldfield approached racing cars with the same audacious confidence that became his hallmark.

When Henry Ford's latest motor car prototypes faltered in head-to-head competition, he turned to Oldfield, betting the fearless cyclist could succeed where seasoned auto racers failed.

Oldfield proved Ford right in stunning fashion. Roaring around the loop at a previously unfathomable 60 mile-per-hour clip, he didn't just win the day’s race—he broke long-held beliefs about the limits of an automobile.

This shocking milestone capture headlines nationwide.

While technologists debated exactly how Oldfield had coaxed such unprecedented velocity from Ford’s machine, everyone from grease-stained mechanics to starry-eyed kids recognized history when they saw it whiz by.

60 mile-per-hour was no longer a barrier, but a launching point. A mere year later, Oldfield crossed the once unthinkable 60 mile-per-hour threshold over a single mile.

Berna Eli Oldfield not only lived up to his “Barney” nickname in those years—he redefined it entirely.

The daring, speed and showmanship embedded in that nickname came to represent not just Oldfield himself in the public eye, but the entire burgeoning culture of racing carved out by those early 20th century daredevils, pushing limits people never dreamed could be broken.


Barney Oldfield breaking records
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In the early days of automobile racing, mile times were the benchmark by which both man and machine measured greatness.

While reducing one's time by a few seconds inspired awe, the coveted prize remained dipping under the one-minute marker—to traverse a full mile at the breakneck pace of 60 miles per hour.  

Many racers had tried, but even the most powerful vehicles of the era had come up short.

Limited by traction, stability and nerve, racing's bold pioneers simply couldn't tame their snarling mechanical beasts for a full 60 miles per hour over an entire mile.

A sub-one minute time seemed well outside the technological limits of the day.

Then in 1903, brash young racer Barney Oldfield settled behind the wheel of his red Knox racer, specially modified for blistering speed.

Oldfield had become something of a celebrity two years earlier after beating racing legend Alexander Winton in Henry Ford's experimental vehicle.

Since then, his aptitude for manhandling temperamental machines had become legendary. Where others saw limits, Barney Oldfield saw challenges to conquer through sheer determination.

As Oldfield pulled onto the mile track in Indianapolis that June day, fans and fellow racers watched with bated breath, hoping but doubting he could achieve the impossible.

The flag dropped and Oldfield shot forward, coaxing every last ounce of speed from his vehicle.

Jaws dropped and stopwatches clicked as Oldfield swept past the finish line a mere 55.8 seconds later, etching his name in history as the first racer to break the elusive one-minute milestone.

While later racers would steadily lower the mark, Oldfield paved the way by being first to prove such velocity attainable over a full mile.

It was a seminal moment that laid the groundwork for all the record-shattering speed trials to come.

More importantly, it established Barney Oldfield as a man who redefined the possible—an innovator who paired boundless courage with peerless skill to achieve feats most never dared dream of.


Barney Oldfield shattering all racing records
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In the early 1900s, those who dared push boundaries of speed captured the public’s imagination. With each mile per hour gained, intrepid racers and mechanics etched their names into history.

But the quest to be crowned ‘speed king’ remained elusive, as the limits of man and machine constantly shifted.

By 1910, Barney Oldfield had already secured his place among racing’s most daring pioneers.

He laid claim to numerous records and milestones behind the wheel, including traversing a mile in just over a minute—once thought impossible.

Even so, the land speed record continued beckoning, as newer, more powerful vehicles made runs at the crown.

That March, Oldfield settled into his menacing Blitzen Benz racer, specially built for blistering velocity.

As he hurtled down the packed sand of Ormond Beach, Florida, fans and journalists lined the course, stopwatches poised. The Blitzen Benz roared by in a blur, clocking a scarcely fathomable 131.724 miles per hour over the measured mile.

The time keepers scarcely believed their own readouts.

Oldfield had not just claimed a new land speed record, he’d utterly demolished the previous mark. The feat seemed superhuman, defying all logic and limits.

When the astonishing achievement was verified, the “Demon Driver of Speed” had staked his claim.

131.724 miles per hour—faster than any man in history.

At last, Barney Oldfield rightfully earned the vaunted title: Speed King.

While later racers continued pushing the limits, Oldfield’s milestone run secured his legacy.

His supreme combination of courage, skill and peerless machinery allowed him to wring velocity from the Blitzen Benz once thought unattainable. In the process, Oldfield etched his name alongside icons like Sir Malcolm Campbell in the annals of speed.


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In the early 20th century, daring drivers like Barney Oldfield pushed boundaries of speed and danger, vying for supremacy in an array of motorized competitions.

While individual races captured headlines, the pinnacle achievements remained the National Championship, established in 1905, and the upstart Indianapolis 500 launching in 1911. To triumph in these marquee events was to cement one’s racing legacy.

Never one to shy from monumental challenges, Oldfield wasted no time in his quest to conquer the biggest stages.

In 1905, during only his fourth year piloting gasoline-powered vehicles, he captured the inaugural National Championship sponsored by the American Automobile Association.

Oldfield dominated that year’s schedule of smaller regional events to clinch the first title, beating out formidable challengers from across the country.

Four years later, with a string of speed records and match race wins under his belt, Oldfield took aim at the newly christened Indy 500.

Though only in its third running, the race had quickly gained prestige, tested both man and machine over a grueling 500 miles.

Undeterred, Oldfield piloted a snarling Mercedes Benz pace car around the Brickyard oval with typically audacious aggression to claim the checkered flag.

By seizing these crowning titles early in his career, Barney Oldfield affirmed his place among racing royalty from the outset alongside contemporaries like Louis Chevrolet.

Fearless speed and uncanny car control were Oldfield’s trademarks, allowing him to tame temperamental early racers that left less courageous drivers spinning in his wake.

When record books recount early racing’s most pivotal competitors, Oldfield's steely nerve and triumph in those landmark early contests secure his place among the legends.


Barney Oldfield drinking a Pepsi
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Long before multi-million dollar endorsement deals and social media influencer sponsorships, Barney Oldfield blazed an early trail between advertising and auto racing.

His spirited promotion for Pepsi’s upstart brand embodied the drink's trademark pep and the driver’s own daring spirit.

Never content unless pushing boundaries on and off the track, Oldfield pioneered what’s now known as lifestyle branding.

Beyond merely endorsing Pepsi as a beverage choice, he wove it into the very fabric of his public image.

Sprinting into speed trials sporting a custom Pepsi-logo racing suit and guzzling the drink before revving his engine, Oldfield’s flair for showmanship cast Pepsi as the preferred refreshment for thrill-seekers everywhere.

Between death-defying runs, he would extol Pepsi’s energy-giving properties to gathered crowds, stoking intrigue and loyalty.

Spectators lined up just to receive a celebratory Pepsi shower from Oldfield's bottle after his victories.

With this wholesale infusion of Pepsi into his high-flying persona, Oldfield minted himself as the world’s first human billboard – a living, breathing embodiment of a brand and its attributes.

The iconoclastic racer thus built an early advertising bridge between consumer products and celebrity that drove Pepsi to new heights.

His sensational career and unabashed Pepsi boosterism cast the young brand as the choice of adventure seekers, mavericks and speed demons.

Thanks to Barney Oldfield hitting the accelerator as Pepsi’s soda pop pioneer, the company succeeded in chasing down far older rival Coca-Cola, eventually passing it in sales. Not bad work for a humble daredevil bottle jockey.


Car dealership
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Long before multi-story showrooms and high-pressure sales pitches, buying an automobile was a decidedly grittier affair.

Early 20th century car companies typically sold their vehicles in informal, factory-adjacent storefronts with little attention to aesthetics or customer experience.

However, racing impresario Barney Oldfield envisioned something classier for fledgling Ford Motor Company.

Teaming up with fellow pioneer Carl G. Fisher, Oldfield helped birth a novel concept in 1904—an exclusive, customer-focused venue for selling, servicing and learning about Ford’s vehicles, independent of Ford’s factories.

This first-of-its-kind space resembled today's auto dealership model that we now take for granted.

Complete with attractive displays, test-drive opportunities and expert staff, the pioneering dealership catered to customers in ways that car manufacturers themselves would not for over a decade.

Its creation marked a seminal development in how automobiles reached the masses.

No longer would buying a car be a mere transaction—Oldfield and Fisher made it an immersive experience.

Their novel approach placing sales secondary to creating a showcase for vehicles aligned perfectly with Ford’s push toward mass adoption. It created a roadmap for the dealership and test driving strategies that continue today.

So as modern drivers browse the latest models and take their favorite contenders for a spin, they have racing firebrand Barney Oldfield and his teammate Carl Fisher to thank for pioneering the entire car shopping ritual.

Though the dealership itself was short-lived, it sparked a sales revolution as pivotal to popularizing autos as Oldfield's daring promotional races.


A car crash
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In early automobile racing's Wild West era, catastrophic crashes and tragic deaths were commonplace.

Open cockpits and minimal protection for drivers meant the smallest collision could turn lethal, and many lost close comrades to the inherent dangers.

Most racers accepted mortality as a tradeoff for pushing boundaries behind the wheel. But following the shocking death of daredevil Bobby Burman, racer Barney Oldfield believed more could be done to temper ever-present dangers drivers faced.

Partnering with brilliant automotive engineer Harry Miller, Oldfield spearheaded innovations to bolster driver safety, unheard of among competitors obsessed solely with speed.

Together they crafted a revolutionary enclosed vehicle frame dubbed the “Golden Submarine.” Featuring a protective roll cage and streamlined shell keeping drivers shielded within its frame, the design prioritized preventing injuries over wringing out faster lap times.

While crude by today’s standards, the Golden Submarine pioneered the critical philosophy of safety over speed for early racing.

Oldfield's proactive development of secure cockpits, seatbelts, and rollover protections undoubtedly saved countless lives as the concept caught on.

Though later racers gained fame going faster, Oldfield deserves recognition for sparking a pivotal mindset shift from dangerous machines toward driver safety solutions.

His Golden Submarine didn't just protect those like Bob Burman who died too soon—it ensured many future daredevils survived to pull into Victory Lane.


Barney Oldfield as an actor
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In the early 20th century, death-defying automobile daredevils like Barney Oldfield became household names through their headline-grabbing speed trials and cross-country tours.

Yet while home audiences thrilled to write accounts of their exploits on twisting dirt tracks, Oldfield saw an opportunity to capture that spectacle on the burgeoning medium of cinema.

Long fascinated by stage and screen, Oldfield leapt at the chance to star in short silent films dramatizing his racing career.

Casting himself in the lead role, he took to movie performances with the same gusto that he attacked steeply banked turns. His natural charisma and comfort in front of cameras allowed him to transition seamlessly into America’s fledgling movie industry.

Bombastic one-reelers like 1913’s “Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life” cast Oldfield as a version of himself on celluloid—a daredevil driver evading cartoonish perils and rescuing damsels in distress.

These films brought his exploits before millions who had never seen an auto race in the flesh.

Though unsophisticated by Hollywood standards, Oldfield’s racing pictures captured vital period excitement while establishing him as one of cinema’s earliest athlete-turned-actor crossover sensations.

By the time he retired his driving helmet in 1918, Barney Oldfield had cemented icon status in two burgeoning entertainment realms.

Thanks to his willingness to shift mediums while shifting gears, both auto racing and Hollywood gained vital momentum in those formative early years seeking mainstream audiences.

And Oldfield found himself forever racing across silver screens, introducing new generations to racing’s hazards and thrills—no crash helmet required.