Jack Johnson vs. Barney Oldfield: The Race

07.10.06 - By John Howard: In October of 1910, still fresh off a win over Jim Jeffries and at the top of his profession as a boxer, Jack Johnson, intrigued by automobiles and speed, challenged Barney Oldfield to an automobile race. Oldfield, the self-proclaimed "World's Champion Automobilist," jumped at Johnson's challenge. The amount wagered between the two was $5,000, a tidy sum of money even for today's standards, a king's ransom for the year 1910.

Oldfield and Johnson shared many similarities. They were both sports pioneers. Oldfield, like Johnson, was fond of sealskin coats and diamond rings. He was married four times but rarely faithful. He drank too much and brawled too often. He spent too much money, often ordering two thousand cigars at a time. Above all, Oldfield shared Johnson's willingness to run big risks. Oldfield pushed the envelope on April 13, 1910, just six months before the race with Johnson, when he drove his "Blitzen Benz" 105.56 mph (in a half-mile) on the board course at the Motordrome near Los Angeles, CA.

The two sides got together to iron-out the details of the race. It would be held at the dirt track at Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn. The winner would be the man who could win two out of three scheduled five-mile heats. A crew was hired to film the contest with Johnson and Oldfield splitting the profits.

Then the plans for the race hit a stumbling block. In order for the race to be sanctioned, Johnson needed to be licensed by the American Automobile Association Board (AAA). At that time, blacks were banned by the AAA. To circumvent this barrier, Johnson sent a white member of his team to the board's New York office. The surrogate filled out the necessary paperwork, paid the $1 fee, and was issued a license in the name of "John Arthur Johnson." When the race became public, and the AAA found out they had been deceived, they sent back Johnson's $1 and rescinded his license. They claimed he obtained his license under false pretenses. Oldfield was also threatened with a suspension if he continued with his plans for the race. Even though the AAA eventually made good on their threat and suspended Oldfield, the race was on!

On the morning of October 25, with a grandstand able to accommodate 10,000 spectators, but at race time was less than half full, the two competitors lined up at the starting line. Oldfield drove a 60-horsepower Knox car, Johnson a bright red, 90-horsepower Thompson Flyer. Once the starter flag was waved, Oldfield roared away, spattering Johnson with mud and finishing the five-mile course in 4:44, more than half a mile ahead of the heavyweight champion. In the second heat, Oldfield slowed down, apparently to make sure the cameras could get both cars in the same shot, and still finished at 5:14, again winning without much of an effort. There was no need for a third heat. Even though Johnson was a fast driver, as countless tickets proved, he was not a racer.

"No more of that automobile racing for Jack Johnson," the champion said. "I may be able to drive a car fast on a straight road, but I never will take any chances on the turns like Oldfield does."

A bit of irony on Johnson's quote. On June 9, 1946, en route to New York where he was going to attend the Louis/Conn rematch, Johnson pulled into a diner just outside of Raleigh, NC. With him was a passenger named Fred Cook. Johnson had hired Cook to relive him at the wheel when he got tired. Upon entering the diner, the two were told they could eat in the back of the diner or not at all. Being successful in the ring, but out of the ring always fighting the color barrier, Johnson became very angry. He took the wheel of his Lincoln Zephyr and traveling at better than seventy miles an hour was unable to maneuver a curve and slammed into a telephone pole. Fred Cook was thrown clear and survived. Jack Johnson died in the hospital some three hours later.

Los Angeles Daily Times. April 14, 1910
Roberts, R. Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes. NY, 1983
Ward, G. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. NY, 2004

Article posted on 08.10.2006

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