Saturday, January 19, 2008

The best known and best advertised driver in the world.

An excerpt from a dusty (that is, if digital stuff can collect dust) manuscript that may see print some day:

Barney Oldfield was described, in one of the local Vancouver papers at the time, as the "best known and best advertised driver in the world." It now seems a back-handed compliment but was a truthful statement at the time.

Barney Oldfield was "merely" a fast driver who had run one of the original Fords for Henry Ford in land speed attempts. He had then gone on to cross North America visiting fairs and horse tracks, like Minoru Park, demonstrating to people not fortunate enough to live in areas that might have had racing already established, what the automobile was all about. He was so well known that cops would often ask speeders that they had pulled over, “who do you think you are, Barney Oldfield?” In a special 1996 issue, 100 Years Of The Automobile In America, Motor Trend magazine presented its "13 Giants of American Motorsport". Barney Oldfield was number one.

He didn't win the Indianapolis 500, having only competed in two of the May events, or win any of the major events held in those early days of automobile racing. He did hold some land speed records set on the straight flying mile at Daytona Beach, Florida. His major influence, though, is exactly what he did at Minoru Park. He helped introduce automobile racing to places that were not the centers of the sport.

For his efforts "Barn-Storming Barney" often was barred from racing events by the official sanctioning body of American racing, the American Automobile Association.

The advertisements in the local papers for Barney's July 20, 1912, appearance were full page. Barney's mug grinned from behind the stubby stogie that was his trade mark. The hyperbole of the ad called him "the emperor of the kingdom of speed" and the "king of speed maniacs".

His racing car at that point was the Christie. In those days the cars were as amazing as the men who drove them, if not more so. The automobile was still being developed and radically modified as quickly as they wheeled around the dirt tracks of North America.

Built by Walter Christie it was a front-wheel direct drive V-4. The cylinders, according to the newspapers, were measured out at 7 3/4 inches by 8 inches which gave the engine a displacement of over 1500 cubic inches. The sound was supposedly akin to a "battery of artillery firing".

Christie, according to reports in the local papers, had told Barney he would give the cigar smoking racer six weeks "of life if you try to drive this car as fast as it will go. Why, man, if you opened it wide on a straight it would shoot you through the fence of a track so quick you would never know you had started, so powerful it is".

Oldfield had raced against the Christie a few years earlier. Barney was in a car that would show up at Minoru Park in 1913, the Blitzen Benz. On the beach of Daytona, Florida, the Christie ran the mile in 30.39 seconds, nearly 120 mph, before seizing up. Barney in the Benz ran the same distance in 28 3/5 seconds.

Two years later Oldfield bought the Christie for $750. He called it “the quickest two mile car in the world today.” Unfortunately he couldn’t get it up to speed on the Minoru mile. Earlier in the summer Oldfield had run the mile in Portland, Oregon, in just over 52 seconds, so the car was
capable of good speed.

It could be said that Barney and his team of two other drivers also introduced corporate sponsorship to the Vancouver racing public. Barney was a stockholder in the Firestone tire company, and carried on the hood of his car, "Firestone Tires, My Only Insurance".

Unfortunately, for all of the buildup and sponsorship, the Christie would not co-operate to either shoot Barney through the fence or set a "world's" record on the Minoru track. He could only get one lap up to racing speed and timed that at one minute, one and two-fifths seconds. The rest of the time the car popped and backfired.

When running properly the text of the day indicates Oldfield and the Christie were magnificent spectacles:

"On the straights Oldfield must have been making 70 miles per hour and the big low-slung red car spat flame and emitted a roar..., dashing up the straight stretch dipping like a speed boat in a ground swell, and seeming to clear yards at a single bound clear of the earth". He could have lit his cigar with that sort of flame.

When it got "sulky" the Christie belched "flames at times that almost enveloped the side of the car".

Barney didn't set a record. He didn't even win any of the races scheduled. That honour went to "Wild Bill" Fritsch in a Cino automobile built in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Fritsch also won a race, and supposedly the $100 bet that was advertised from a local Vancouver man, C.E. Winsler, in J.E. Gray's Metropolitan garage 33 horse-power Hudson. Reports had Fritsch's Cino toying with Winsler's Hudson.

Fritsch took a five mile race from fellow touring pro Lew Heineman who was driving a Prinz Henry Benz. The Benz apparently took a cue from Barney's Christie and would not perform. The win gave Fritsch the chance to go against Barney for three miles. For two of those three miles it was close until the Christie bogged down again.

Barney, frustrated with the Christie, hopped in the Benz only to find it acting up once more. Barney's legendary mechanical ability--he could take a balky motor to the starting line, hop out of the driver seat and deftly tweak something under the hood to make it run smoothly, mainly because he had detuned the car before hand--left him at Minoru Park. Reports had the magneto on both cars failing.

With that let down, the cars, with Barney Oldfield et al., headed east to Calgary and other prairie towns.

The only other problem with the Minoru race was getting all the people home to Vancouver from Lulu Island. B.C. Electric had put out special cars but with the automobile races being run after the horse races the reported crowds of anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 (depending on the newspaper) all surged home at the same time. It apparently took some people until 8 o’clock to get home. Scandalous behavior for 1912.

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