A Bicycle and Auto Racer Starts His First Lap

January 29, 1878

Bicycle and automobile racer Berna Eli “Barney” Oldfield was born in York Township in northwestern Ohio. Oldfield launched his career as a bicycle racer in 1894 when he was only 16. Oldfield’s bicycle accomplishments brought him to the attention of Henry Ford, who invited him to test-drive one of his automobiles designed for racing. Despite the fact that he had never driven an automobile before, Oldfield took up Ford on his offer and paved the way for a memorable, record-setting career as an automobile racer.

At the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis in June 1903, Oldfield became the first driver to run a one-mile (1.6-kilometer)-long track in one minute. Two months later, he drove one mile (1.6 kilometers) in 55.8 seconds at the Empire City Race Track in Yonkers, New York. Oldfield subsequently toured the United States to perform a series of timed runs and match races, establishing himself as a household name. Oldfield’s wide-ranging exhibitions included at least 35 shows in which he raced a Fiat automobile against aviation pioneer Lincoln Beachey’s aircraft.

Oldfield left a huge impression in other ways as well. In the 1913 silent comedy short “Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life,” for example, he outsped a locomotive to rescue a heroine tied to the train tracks. Oldfield helped fellow racer Carl G. Fisher (widely known as the Father of the Lincoln Highway) start up the Indianapolis-based Fisher Automobile Company, which is believed to have been the first American automobile dealership.

Oldfield’s other entrepreneurial achievements included establishing a profitable tire company for automobiles in 1919. Oldfield, who died in 1946 at the age of 68, also made an important contribution to automobile racing safety when he helped develop a “roll cage” within the compartment of a race car to keep the driver secured inside the vehicle.

For more information on Berna Eli “Barney” Oldfield, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barney_Oldfield.

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