The Barnstormers


"Barnstorming," in general, is about theatrical performers or daredevils of one sort or the other traveling to rural areas to stage entertainment, many times with the purpose to thrill. In the early days of the racing cars, a tour of drivers presenting high-speed contests to people, many of whom had never seen an automobile before, was a natural fit.

Many of the barnstormers labeled their rural audiences as "weedbenders," in reference to their farming profession. They probably were a naive lot as they witnessed auto races for the first time.

How could anyone possibly know how many of those in the grandstands understood the level of stage management involved with the production? There's no doubt many were conned as these shows attracted healthy crowds profitable to the performers and the county fair horse track promoters.

The poster child for these early races was Barney Oldfield, America's first motorsports superstar. Born in a log cabin, Oldfield was a son of the rural environment but also very much a leader in the young generation shedding that lifestyle to embrace the trappings of the industrial age.

His motivations for participating in barnstorming shows are not widely understood and in some ways have defined and tarnished his place in history. For decades beginning with his own time many saw Oldfield as a huckster, a phony who always chose the quick buck over the true test of his skills in legitimate competition.

Honestly, there is a ring of truth to that assessment but also it unravels because it is simplistic and incomplete. In these formative years of motor racing, these pioneers were many times making up rules as they went along. The American Automobile Association (AAA) and, for a while, the Automobile Club of America (ACA) saw need and opportunity in trying to organize things.

The unscrupulous roamed the landscape as well, the same people who promoted any number of entertainment offerings, such as circus troupes, frequently played games with gate receipts. To some degree, the AAA inserted itself to protect the reputation of the sport as well as lend integrity to car classifications and build confidence with car manufacturers.

Oldfield had burst on the scene in 1902 with tons of confidence and daring. Over the next two years, he was the undisputed star of the new sport, touring the country to set speed records on the most convenient, readily available style of venue in America: the state and county fair dirt horse tracks.

By 1905 new players such as Swiss-born Louis Chevrolet and Earl Kiser emerged, along with powerful European cars in Fiat, Mercedes, and Decauville. Steam power also burst on the scene, most notably the White Steam Company's "Whistling Billy" in the capable hands of Webb Jay.

That was a rough year on several levels. Kiser and Jay were severely injured in career-ending accidents while Chevrolet struck and nearly killed a teenage boy in the infield of one track. Worse, Oldfield crashed through the fences of Grosse Pointe to kill two men and bust himself up enough for a hospital stay.

All of this got old Barney thinking.

He believed the crowds were coming to see him, and, frankly, to a lesser extent the other drivers. The people wanted to see "people risk their necks," he said, and for that, Oldfield believed, he was receiving a modest and unfair share of the spoils. Between the infuriating, over-governing AAA and the track promoters Oldfield and his colleagues were effectively cheated out of money.

The other issue was safety. The Grosse Pointe accident was born of wheel-to-wheel competition and following the churning dust cloud kicked up by fellow competitors. Literally blinded by a wall of tan dust, there was too much guesswork in calculating where to put your wheels to avoid tangling with competitors or crashing into rails.

Oldfield knew he could mitigate risk to improve safety by orchestrating high-speed events and selling them as races. He was also an entrepreneur and by setting up his own race team and traveling amusement show he could cut deals directly with venue managers to leave out the middleman's share.

The AAA, being that middleman, took a dim view of such antics. Culturally, too, it was somewhat analogous to the political condition of our country today with an America divided into teams of "red" and "blue." The New York and Chicago-based AAA were at the heart elite urban and industrial sensibilities while hardscrabble Oldfield and his ilk were independent, self-reliant hustlers thriving in remote areas.

What you'll find in the link below is not quite a window, but more of a peephole into the life of the barnstormer. That was a life the AAA worked hard to destroy by frequently banning Oldfield, feeding newspapers to discredit him and threatening track owners with the loss of sanctioned auto races to promote and feed their revenue streams.

The entry at the link below reports on one such barnstorming event at the Ft. Erie track near Buffalo, a horse-racing venue still operating today. Joining Barney on this occasion was J. Walter Christie, another independent thinker but more of the engineering technical vein, but a man always in need of money to fuel the fruition of his many ideas - some practical, some not so much.

From there you can click through and learn of other barnstormers and match racers who saw a financial advantage in the Oldfield formula. Among them was Ben Kirschner, an employee of Oldfield's race team, and frequently his foil in the barnstorming shows. Ralph DePalma was another favorite and his legendary rivalry, somewhat real and somewhat exaggerated, with Oldfield supercharged public interest.

Yes, these were wild and crazy times. What's more, they are largely misunderstood, along with the people who made them possible. Here's your chance to consider an alternative, more well-rounded perspective.

But you have to click thru. Go can do it!