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The Barnstormers and Early Racing

Barnstorming as it is called is usually thought of in connection with airplanes. Wiki defines the beginning of Barnstorming as the follows; The Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss had early flying exhibition teams and solo flyers like Lincoln Beachey and Didier Masson also became popular before World War I in the USA, but barnstorming did not become a formal phenomenon until the 1920s.

The very interesting film produced by OurOhio (below), explains the origins of aircraft barnstorming and and shows both period and recent footage. The film will also tell you  the real origin of barnstorming. It also shows how aircraft barnstorming paralleled non-sanctioned auto racing in the post WWI era. Many of the surplus engines used in these airplanes were also converted to racing car use in the late teens and twenties.

Our recent post on Chester Cheney who started out in organized racing, but later on ended up racing with the “The Marshall Flying Squadron”, got us to thinking about covering “Barnstorming” or “Outlaw” racing as it is also called. Outlaw racing was the term given to racing that was not under the official sanction of the AAA and its Contest Board.

Not everyone could race on the AAA circuit, because the cost of traveling and first rate equipment was very expensive. This opened up opportunities for non-sanctioned races, many of which were honest, but it also opened up a grey area for shady promoters to profit. Many traveling racers then as today, made their living on the rough and tumble outlaw racing circuits of the time and many also died or were hurt badly in early racing.

One of the most well know of all the early auto racing barnstormers is Barney Oldfield,  who first started racing for Henry Ford and is seen with one of Ford’s early racers (at the top) circa 1902. Oldfield soon was doing exhibition races with Lincoln Beachey aboard one of his airplanes, where the pair both no doubt earned big money entertaining the rubes on the country fair circuit.

A bit later on two promoters Ernie A. Moross (one of his meets is shown above) and William Pickens sensed, that there was big money to be made in promoting non-sanctioned auto races. The two at times even bought racing cars and hired drivers and formed a traveling racing circus, which made the rounds of the fairground circuits of the country during the year. Most of the races were rigged and usually the winner most of the time, was the star driver who also always set a new “Worlds Record” in the race.

Oldfield is shown (above) a bit later on here in his Christie, in a photo he sent to Henry Ford, after an appearance in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of  the Henry Ford.

Oldfield was always pushing the limits with the AAA and because of that and his desire to make big money he ended up being suspended by the club. Promoter Will Pickens and Oldfield staged a race with boxing star Jack Johnson after he challenged the racing star. AAA officials warned him that if he participated in the “unsanctioned farce” he would be suspended and after the “race” they did just that (this is a story in itself that also needs to be covered in the future).

Oldfield and his manager (Pickens) were immediately suspended by the AAA because of the race and from that point on the speed king was on the “Outlaw Circuit”

An article found (above) in the March 25, 1911, issue of Automobile Topics tells of Oldfield’s cars being reinstated in the AAA by Moross. Oldfield would have to wait another year until April of 1912, when his suspension was uplifted by the contest board.

Oldfield is shown here in his Blitzen Benz mentioned in the article (above), making an appearance on a fairgrounds track. The photo is from the Peter Helck Collection, courtesy of Racemaker Press.

If we can find more good photos and information about non-sanctioned racing in the pre 1933 era, we will continue on and make this into a series. If any of our readers can help please send us a comment.

Before we go much further with this story though let’s back up and you should take a few moments to read all of the many comments that came in from readers research about Chester Cheney’s involvement with  “The Marshall Flying Squadron”. Readers Carl Schutz and Jim Taggart came up with many interesting details about the group of racers, including one, Marion Arnold who died in a crash.

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