Barney Oldfield Sends Fort Smith Racing into the Future
By the turn of the 20th century, Fort Smith had developed a water system, a sewer system, a fire department, electric lights, buildings heated with natural gas, railroad lines, a few paved roads, a trolley system, a model public school system and even an opera house. A real first-class city! But soon after 1900, Fort Smith would begin racing into the future.
In 1901, behind a bicycle shop in the heart of downtown, four local men rolled out a noisy little contraption they had been building for two years in their spare time and the first automobile chugged down Garrison Avenue. At the same time, two brothers named Wright were tinkering on an even stranger machine in their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio.
A year later in Detroit, Henry Ford was creating a beast of a race car in hopes of using the new fad of auto racing to get back into business. He already had lost two early automobile companies.
Soon, these new inventions would converge in, and over, the River City!
A grand new Electric Park was opened in 1905 by the Fort Smith Light & Traction Co. The park, lighted by the novel sight of electic light bulbs, was located at the end of a long trolley route through woods to where Kay Rodgers Park is today.
Dozens of cities across the nation opened electric parks, built by utility companies to show off the wonders of electricity and fill the seats of new electric-powered trolleys.
The success of Fort Smith’s Electric Park spurred the spread of the trolley system into other parts of the city. In 1910, the Fort Smith Light & Traction Co. extended a new line south from Dodson Avenue, along South 21st Street, to the growing Park Hill neighborhood.
That same year, J.C. “Bud” Mars, the 11th pilot licensed in the United States, arrived here by railroad with his Curtiss “aeroplane.” After the airplane was reassembled, the first manned flight in Arkansas took off from the Fort Smith Country Club just north of Electric Park. Today, the old golf course is closed, but 108 years ago next month, the future literally took off from there.
All this excitement, progress and the new trolley line inspired a group described by the newspaper as farmers and businessmen to resolve in a January 1911 meeting to hold a fair. The new Arkansas-Oklahoma Interstate Fair Association pledged to raise $200,000 to create a fairground.
With the backing of the Commercial League, forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce, 40 acres was purchased from J.W. Buscamp and 94 acres from Ayers & Co. four blocks south of the city limits on the Jenny Lind Road. The cost was $8,950.
The plan included a half-mile horse track with a $20,000 grandstand to seat 5,000 people and $55,000 worth of other buildings and improvements.
Incredibly, everything was completed in time for the first Arkansas-Oklahoma Interstate Fair to open Oct. 16, 1911. Crowds were expected, but the attendance was over the top.
For the first time, it appears, horsepower instead of horses raced in Fort Smith on Oct. 19, 1911.
A Buick, driven by J. Walter Gillette, manager of Fort Smith Light & Traction Co., beat a Fal-Car owned by fire chief Dempsey B. Trowbridge and driven by Bill Hennessy.
Fal-Car (or F.A.L. Car) autos were produced from 1909-1914 and were known as “the car without a name.” They were meant to be renamed by any dealer. We could be driving a Randall today if that idea had caught on.
The race generated only a little press at the time, but it planted a seed. The 1911 fair’s great turnout caused the planners to produce fairs on steroids for the next two years, with more animals, more events, more exhibits, advertised as The World's Fair of the Southwest!
But back to Henry Ford in 1902. Because he was afraid to drive his new four-cylinder, 80-horsepower monster, later known as 999, he searched for someone crazy enough to do it.
He found the right guy: a championship bicycle racer from Ohio named Berna Eli Oldfield, 24. The meeting of Ford and Oldfield in Detroit would change America.
Though Oldfield had never driven, after a week of practice, he stunned the racing
world. In his first race, he beat the socks off the top driver, Alexander Winton, at the Grosse Pointe horse track. It spelled the eventual end of Winton motorcars and the beginning of Ford Motor Co.
Until the end of their lives, Oldfield bragged that he “made” Ford and Ford said he thought they “made” each other.
Winning that first race allowed Ford to go on to invent the Model T, the car that put America on wheels. Oldfield was the original bad boy of auto racing. He made his own rules. He drove with a cigar clenched in his teeth, thinking the cigar would keep him from having his teeth knocked out in a wreck. He was the first to drive a mile in less than a minute and the first to make a lap at the Indianapolis Speedway at a steady 100 mph, in the same car pictured in this article.
Oldfield clashed with the sanctioning body of racing, the American Automobile Association. In 1910, it banned “The Speed King” from racing after he agreed to an unsanctioned race against boxing great Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world. The contest had racist overtones and the crowd went wild when Oldfield beat Johnson by a nose. A film clip of that race can be seen on YouTube.com.
Defying the ban, Oldfield formed a group of top racers to barnstorm the country. In 1912, they came to Fort Smith’s fair. He owned the cars and employed the racers and they weren't above letting Oldfield win on the last lap.
He was paid $5,000 to bring his racers here. That's almost $125,000 in 2018 dollars. On Oct. 19, the racers thrilled the crowd and Oldfield broke his own record for the half-mile on our fairgrounds track.
The men and their race cars
Oldfield was the most famous race car driver in the nation – perhaps the world – when he was here. He wowed Fort Smith again in 1914 when he, in his Christie race car, and Lincoln Beachey, in a Curtiss bi-plane, toured the country in “The Championship Of The Universe,” an exhibition race of auto vs. airplane. They earned about a quarter of a million dollars that year.
Beachey already had made history in Fort Smith in November 1911. He took off from League Field with a sack of mail and dropped it onto the lawn of the Post Office on South 6th Street, the second airmail drop in U.S. history.
League Field was located just south of Electric Park where the Terry Motel is today. Sadly, Beachey was killed at the 1915 World's Fair in San Francisco when his experimental monoplane dropped from the sky and sank in San Francisco Bay. A Beachey vs. Oldfield race film can be found on YouTube.
In 1912, Oldfield bought one of the most mythical cars in automotive racing history from its inventor, designer and builder, John Walter Christie – a 1909 front-wheel-drive race car described as the Killer Christie and a Wicked Old Freak. This is the same car he used at Indy in 1916 when he drove it to a sustained speed of 102 mph for one lap. He came in fifth place in the race. He later set a 2-mile record at 113 mph at the Chicago Speedway.
Oldfield then sold the car and it passed through other hands until it was broken up in 1919, because much of it was made of cast bronze.
Driver Harry Goetz, a former bicycle racer, was the mechanic for Ray Harroun when he won the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911. Goetz was among the first to race on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1914. Later, he was the mechanic for Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker.
Goetz arrived in Fort Smith for the 1912 race driving the #26 Prince Henry Benz. He got a speeding ticket driving the car around town the day before the big race.
Oldfield owned the #26 car. It appears in the 1913 movie “Barney Oldfield's Race For Life” starring Oldfield, Mabel Normand and director Mack Sennett in a rare acting role. Goetz moved on to speed boat racing and died a millionaire. The restored Prince Henry Benz sold at a Bonhams antique car auction in 2017 for $1.87 million!
Lou Heinemann, almost forgotten today, also was top racer. He was the driver of the #11 car in the Arkansas Garage photo. It is probably a 1910 Buick, painted white and promoted as The White Streak, “the car for men with real red blood who don't like to eat dust.”
The Arkansas-Oklahoma Interstate Fairgrounds had a short life. Its first three years were very successful. But in 1914, a week of bad weather resulted in financial ruin. Though announcements were made for a 1915 fair, it never happened. In 1916, the fairgrounds was foreclosed upon and sold to satisfy $22,000 in unpaid debts. It appears the buildings and grandstand were dismantled for the value of the lumber.
In the 1950s, Ramsey Junior High was built on the old fairgrounds, followed by Fairview Elementary. Ahh ... fair view! Now, we know. It is possible the old racetrack was visible until construction of Ramsey in 1955.
By Joe Wasson
This article appears in the April 2018 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.