October 25

This Day in History

Automotive

Oct 25, 1910:

Barney Oldfield defeats boxer Jack Johnson in Brooklyn auto race

On October 25, 1910, white race car driver Barney Oldfield beats prizefighter Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world, in two five-mile car races in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.

Oldfield and Johnson had a history: Oldfield's friend, the white heavyweight champ James J. Jeffries, had quit boxing in 1908 because he did not want to fight a black man for his title. In July 1910, Jeffries came out of retirement to fight Johnson at last, but lost in 15 rounds. (Twenty-six people were killed and hundreds were injured in the nationwide riots that followed the black fighter's victory.)  After that, Johnson was unable to find anyone who would fight him—so, he turned to car racing instead. In October 1910, he challenged Oldfield to a race.

Oldfield, a flamboyant daredevil who had just set a new land-speed record (131 mph) in his Blitzen Benz, accepted the challenge at once. The competitors bet $5,000 on the contest—the driver who won two out of three five-mile heats would win the bet—and invited a Hollywood crew to film the race. But there was a problem: in order to make the race official, Johnson needed a license from the American Automobile Association, but the AAA refused to license black drivers. What's more, the organization told Oldfield that it would rescind his license if he went through with the race. But bets had been made and contracts signed, so the race was on!

Rain delayed the race several times, but on October 25 the skies were clear. Five thousand people gathered at the Brooklyn track, waving their hats and cheering for the movie cameras. Oldfield, driving a 60-horsepower Knox car, won the first heat by a half-mile, in 4:44. In the second, he slowed down a bit—he kept just ahead of Johnson's bright-red car, taunting the boxer as he drove--but won the race in 5:14. There was no need for a third heat: Barney Oldfield was the winner.

Eighteen months later, the AAA reinstated Oldfield and he began to race again. A few years later, he drove the first 100-mph lap in the history of the Indianapolis 500 race. Johnson's luck was not as good: Many people resented his success, and especially his habit of dating white women, and he was arrested several times on trumped-up violations of the Mann Act. As a result, he spent a year in federal prison. Johnson died in a car accident in 1946.  He was 68 years old.

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