Black Men, Black Hearts in 1910


On this day 108 years ago one of the strangest auto races in history took place. The venue was a dirt track in Sheepshead Bay, New York and the featured characters were America’s first auto racing superstar, Barney Oldfield, and Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion.


                                        Barney Oldfield & Jack Johnson: May the best man win.

While America still struggles with racism today and divisiveness has been brought to a boiling point, the level of blatant discrimination that existed at the time would shock virtually everyone this side of David Duke now. Even esteemed writers like Jack London, the author of the American classic, “Call of the Wild,” was unabashed in his criticism of blacks — and particularly Johnson — in his San Francisco Examiner column.
Nobody personified the target of racist hate more than Jack Johnson. He not only won the championship, but he dominated Jim Jeffries who reigned supreme in the ring as heavyweight champion from 1898 through 1905. That flared tempers to the point of rioting across the nation.
White America almost universally detested Johnson. After he dismantled all active fighters that dared to challenge him, the powers of the boxing community coaxed Jeffries off his alfalfa farm with money, praise, and a sense of duty to his race to come out of retirement and defeat Johnson. Promoters and the press christened Jeffries “The Great White Hope.”
The fight took place in July 1910 and while Jeffries gamely hung on, he was never a serious threat to the younger Johnson. Five years of farming and the natural aging process had reduced him. Johnson won the match on a technical knockout in the 15th round after knocking Jeffries to the canvas three times in the closing two minutes.
All of this leads us to an October 25, 1910 auto race because of two factors. One, Jack Johnson loved automobiles and driving them fast. Tooling about and scaring his girlfriends led him to wonder and probably believe he had what it took to conquer auto racing. Two, boxing promoters had no interest in organizing fights for Johnson because the public — white boxing fans — had no interest in watching him beat up their heroes. Besides, there were no promising contenders on the horizon and others simply had no interest in being beaten for paltry prize money.
The entire ugly reality of the situation threw the once supremely popular sport of boxing onto hard times. Jackson decided to pivot to the sport of auto racing. He began attending auto races of the day and challenging that sport’s stars. People like Ralph De Palma wanted no part of the circus, but his archrival Oldfield thrived on that kind of thing.
Oldfield was a bona fide top-flight race driver but his penchant for showmanship and money-making antics in his “pumpkin fair” barnstorming tours overshadowed his legitimate skills. Still, beyond the northeastern United States where he frequently found patrons of proper motorsport and its newspapers holding him in disdain, Oldfield was the most famous and celebrated race driver in the country.
Oldfield, a hunting buddy of Jeffries, saw a great opportunity in a match with Johnson. Not only did he believe a one-on-one match race with Johnson would sell tickets, but also he could have the entire thing filmed and distributed to theaters nationwide for an even bigger payday. This was common practice in the boxing industry at the time and extended the reach of the sport to remote areas whose residents could only read about it otherwise.
Meanwhile, Johnson had applied for and was granted a racing license by the American Automobile Association (AAA). Whoever stamped that document was probably fired within weeks because the AAA rescinded Johnson’s license. The story goes that they were protecting their sport because they feared that Johnson could do to racing what he did to boxing. Destroy interest in it by winning.
Oldfield had been sanctioned by the AAA a couple of times before for coloring outside the lines. The sanctioning body had a virtual monopoly on the sport and was the leading advocacy group for the automobile industry in Federal and State government. Oldfield was the most threatening single person to their grip on the sport. His following was so strong he could still earn tremendous sums of money by staging unsanctioned events.
The AAA threatened track promoters with disenfranchisement if they played Oldfield’s game. The bigger metropolitan tracks were completely in line with the national organization but a lot of the small dirt tracks Oldfield haunted were unimpressed. They had no vested interest in hosting AAA events because they never had before.
Oldfield and Johnson marched forward with their match race plans and the AAA made it clear that Barney would be banned from the sport if he followed through. Oldfield wasn’t impressed and probably took delight in flipping off the AAA, dominated by northeastern elites. As for Johnson, he had nothing to lose.
The whole affair was anti-climatic. Oldfield in his Knox easily dusted Johnson in his Thomas Flyer which should never have been a surprise given the professional skill set each man possessed. It was a best of three heats affair and Oldfield simply drove away in the first two.
The AAA made good on its threat to ban Oldfield, who continued his barnstorming primarily in the Wild West and Mexico. His appeal undeniable, the AAA reinstated him in 1912 when the sport lost one its most promising young stars, David Bruce-Brown during practice for the American Grand Prize. Oldfield returned to officially sanctioned racing for that race in the very same factory Fiat Bruce-Brown had lost his life in two days prior. He ended up bringing the car home fourth in a race of attrition.
Johnson led a tormented life, even spending time in prison on trumped-up charges. He lost his title to Jess Willard in 1915 when he found himself tired and out-of-shape not unlike Jeffries was with him five years before. He continued in boxing well past his prime, especially with training and exhibitions. His passion for driving fast led to his death in June 1946 when he lost control of his Lincoln Zephyr while speeding at night on a North Carolina highway.
The film of the Oldfield-Johnson mismatch — or at least part of it — can be found today on YouTube. It was largely a bust in theaters, who showed little interest. It’s hard to imagine even Oldfield looked back on the event as anything but a debacle. Today, it serves as a fascinating historical reflection on many levels.
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