His first major win came about because he took the corners like a motorcycle racer, allowing the rear end of the car to slide out or fishtail around a curve. At the 1902 Manufacturer’s Challenge Cup, Oldfield beat the reigning champion by half a mile in a five-mile race using the technique.
Oldfield’s need for speed became famous, Newspapers loved to carry stories about his breaking a speed limit in some town or another. He was the first man to reach the startling speed of 60 miles per hour and the first to take a turn at the Indianapolis Speedway at over 100 mph. Police reportedly were fond of asking citizen speeders they picked up if they thought they were Barney Oldfield.
Common headlines across the country in the early part of the Twentieth Century were variations of “Oldfield Smashes Record” again and again. He didn’t confine his efforts to only racing. Oldfield was always up for a stunt. In 1910 he raced Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson, toying with the man on the track by surging ahead and falling back to let him catch up. In a wire service story, he said, “I raced Jack Johnson neither for money or glory, but to eliminate from my profession an invader who would have had to be reckoned with sooner or later.” He would have said that with his signature cigar poking from the corner of his mouth. He found early on that one driver looked much like another after a race, covered in dust or mud, but the one with a cigar in his mouth stood out.
Oldfield became a sensation at county fairs all across the country. Prior to his appearance at the 1915 fairgrounds in Boise, The Idaho Statesman ran the following tease, “If neither Barney Oldfield, the world’s master driver, nor DeLoyd Thompson, the aerial marvel, is killed or injured when they present their series of sensational, spectacular and startling stunts on the massive Chicago speedway this afternoon, tonight they will commence their 1800-mile trip to appear in their nerve-tingling feats at the Boise race track on next Thursday afternoon.”
Boise Mayor Jeremiah W. Robinson climbed on board the hype train by declaring a “half holiday” the afternoon of June 24, the day of the exhibition of speed and daring. The Statesman piled on with “Thursday afternoon the clerks and other toilers, instead of simply visualizing the fear-chilling feats may, side by side with their employers, do what has been done in every other city where Thompson and Oldfield have shown—by their spontaneous and vociferous manifestations of appreciation demonstrate forcibly and indubitably that they coincide with the opinion of Mayor Robinson that each of these death cheaters is ‘without a peer in his line.’”
All the build-up worked. When the 24th rolled around the “largest crowd ever gathered in the city” turned out to see Oldfield and Thompson. There were 8,000 paid admissions.
Oldfield putted around the track in a couple of different cars, breaking the track record each time, for “the fastest mile ever traveled in Idaho,” according to the Statesman. Thompson, meanwhile, “soared aloft like a condor and tumbled to earth like a tumbler pigeon.”
Then the paper reported on the race with totally spontaneous and not at all scripted quotes. “The real excitement, with an accompaniment of comparative thrills, was produced by the race between Oldfield in his Flat Cyclone and Thompson in his biplane.
‘No cutting corners now,’ warned Barney as they got ready to start.
‘I don’t have to, to beat you in that old stinkpot, replied Thompson.
‘For mercy’s sake don’t fly too low this time,’ pleaded Mrs. Oldfield. “I look such a fright in black and I can’t get along without Barney.’
“All right, I won’t bean him too hard.’
“Away they went, Thompson 50 feet above the flying Fiat. Down swooped the biplane on the back stretch until only inches separated the wheels from Barney’s head. Barney coaxed a few links out the Fiat and as they passed the stand the first time he was a full car length ahead of the biplane. Thompson stuck right above Barney’s poll all the way around the second time and finished with his propeller fanning Barney’s oily brow.
‘Mercy, didn’t he fly too low,’ said Mrs. Oldfield
‘Don’t you remember the race in Pittsburg,’ reminded Barney, ‘when he kept so low that I couldn’t get under him? You’re not going to collect any insurance on me, not even a strip of a tire on that kind of racing.’
“At the end of the race Thompson soared again and began dropping bombs on an impromptu fort in the middle of the enclosure while he was bombarded by a mortar within the fortification. He circled around like an eagle while the bombs cracked far behind him. The fort was soon on fire and the aviator ‘descended within the lines’ as they say in Europe.”
What a show it was. If they brought something like that to Les Bois Park today, there wouldn’t be any need to argue semantics about video racing machines.
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