Unsavory History

One the strangest and most unsavory chapters in auto racing history is the unlikely pairing of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight world boxing champion against American auto racing's first full-fledged star, Barney Oldfield.


Johnson, a strong willed man refused to conform to the racist norms of American society in 1910. Not only did he thumb his nose at convention, but he antagonized his critics. His relationships with white women inflamed the anger of his attackers, already stunned by Johnson not only defeating a series of white fighters including Bob Fitzsimmons, Stanley Ketchel and Tommy Burns but also the revered Jim Jeffries who was billed as "The Great White Hope." After defeating Jeffries on July 4, 1910 Johnson had difficulty obtaining fights and began to consider another profession that he found fascinating - auto racing. A video clip from the Ketchel fight appears below.


Johnson began challenging prominent race drivers such as Ralph DePalma and Barney Oldfield to  a match race. Oldfield, never missing a bet on staging a show he thought people would pay to see, accepted. The two men met at Sheepshead Bay, New York, a one mile dirt track where later a more famous two-mile board track would be erected. This photo was taken from that meeting on October 25, 1910.


According to Oldfield biographer William Nolan, this is the dialogue that went on between the two men at the time of this photograph. This is a partial lift from Nolan's outstanding biography:


"They tell me you can handle a racing car," Barney said cooly, extending his right hand.


"I aim to show you I can," relpied Johnson. His fingers tightened.


The muscles of Barney's right arm swelled as he met the pressure of Johnson's grip.


"You're a strong man, Mr. Oldfield."


"Takes more than muscle to drive a racing car. But I guess you know all about racing, Mr. Johnson. Or at least you will before the day is over."


Oldfield, driving a 60 hp Knox, easily outdistanced Johnson and his Thomas Flyer in two five mile races. It was hardly a fair contest as Oldfield held a tremendous experience advantage. Although the commentary on this film is inaccurate, it is marvelous that a video record of the two men racing still exists.


Although Johnson never pursued a racing career after this experience, his appreciation for automobiles held firm to the end. He died at the wheel of a Lincoln Zephyer while speeding on a highway near Franklinton, North Carolina on June 10, 1946. Oldfield and Johnson both died in the same year - 1946 - and were both 68 years old.


Johnson's legacy lives well beyond his life of 68 years. His story was the inspiration of the James Earl Jones movie, "The Great White Hope" and the Ken Burns documentary, "Unforgivable Blackness."

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