Barney Oldfield was the ‘King of Speed’, the most famous driver from the very first days of automobile racing. He began by racing bicycles but in 1902 he was invited to drive Henry Ford’s race car, ‘999’. Although he had never driven a car before, he won his first race against what was supposed to be the fastest car in the world. His success in this and many subsequent races sparked his own career and also contributed to Ford’s rise as America’s foremost auto maker. Oldfield not only beat other drivers in these races but also routinely set new speed records. He was the first to break the mile-a-minute mark, completing a mile course in one minute, an average speed of 60 MPH, on June 30, 1903.
On November 25, 1903, Oldfield came to San Diego to participate in the city’s first ‘automobile meeting’ on Thanksgiving Day at a track in Coronado. The Evening Tribune announced that the great Barney Oldfield, the ‘mile-a-minute-man’, had arrived with his string of ‘buzz wagons’ (although the paper noted that the name no longer did him justice since he had been ‘steadily chopping down the mile automobile record until it stands at 55 seconds flat’). Advertisements for the event promised that the famous mile-a-minute man would attempt to lower his mile record, but in the aftermath the Tribune reported ‘No Records Smashed’, although Oldfield did complete one mile lap in 58 seconds. The paper blamed the poor condition of the track on the back stretch, where the sand in one of his circuits of the mile ring came near being the chauffeur’s undoing. Nevertheless, the exhibition was a complete success, with the first automobile races in the city calling out an attendance of 1500 people. ‘Oldfield, of course, was the center of attraction, and no one was disappointed’.
The Tribune interviewed George Nolan, manager of San Diego Cycle and Arms Co., who reported that so far as he had learned everyone was pleased with the event. Asked about the possibility of a second appearance here of Oldfield, Nolan said that it wouldn’t surprise him if Oldfield would come back with one of his racing machines to beat the world’s record for a mile straightaway. Asked where the straightaway race course was he replied ‘On Pacific Beach, the finest place in the country. Four miles of wide beach there as hard as this table, convenient to get at and in all other respects desirable’. Nolan added that the mile straightaway record was 46 seconds, but was not held by Oldfield, whose record was for a circular course.
Actually, automobile racing on beaches had been introduced earlier in 1903 at Ormond Beach, the ‘birthplace of speed’, just north of Daytona Beach on Florida’s Atlantic coast, where the hard-packed sand provided the long, hard, flat and straight surface ideal for speed trials. Over the next few years speed records were repeatedly set and then broken there until in 1906 the Stanley Rocket, a steam-powered and aerodynamically designed vehicle, set a record of 127 MPH over a mile course which stood for years.
Automobiles had actually ‘raced’ on Pacific Beach in 1903 too, but at a much more leisurely pace. The San Diego Union’s Pacific Beach Notes column reported in September 1903 that F. W. Barnes and E. C. Thorpe, two of the community’s leading citizens, had raced their automobiles on the beach and made the entire length of the beach in eight minutes, which would represent a speed of about 30 MPH.
Meanwhile, Barney Oldfield continued winning and setting records on race tracks around the country. In April 1907 he was again in the San Diego area where he was the featured attraction in the opening of the Lakeside Inn Speedway, and where he again set a record for one mile on a circular track at 51 4/5 seconds, nearly 70 MPH, breaking his own record by 1 1/5 seconds. However, the San Diego Union reported that the great auto driver also had another goal in mind while he was in town and that following the race in Lakeside he would begin preparations for a try at the one mile straightaway record. In an arrangement with Folsom Bros. Co., he would attempt to lower the record on the magnificent stretch at Pacific Beach. San Diego would be given the opportunity to see the great ‘racing king’ speed his ‘flyer’ at a far faster gait than was possible on a circular track where turns had to be made.
According to the paper, he had been taken to Pacific Beach two weeks before by M. W. Folsom. He had expressed great surprise when he drove his car on the beach and immediately gave it as his opinion that he could smash some records if given the opportunity. A trip over the beach strengthened this opinion and he stated that he had not the slightest doubt that he would be able to do the mile in 40 seconds, or even less. The following Thursday was selected as the date and since afternoon would be the most propitious time of the day, as tide conditions would then be more perfect, the runs would be made between 1:30 and 3 o’clock. Accompanied by his wife he would leave for the Hotel Balboa at Pacific Beach immediately after the races in Lakeside concluded on Sunday, and his cars would follow on Monday morning so that he could become thoroughly acquainted with the beach and the conditions prevailing.
The beach at Pacific Beach was four miles in length and at low tide 600 feet wide and Oldfield was said to be enthusiastic over its possibilities as a race course. He stated that in his opinion it was far superior to Ormond Beach, where the great winter races of the Atlantic coast were held. The sand at Pacific Beach was harder and the wind far more favorable for record smashing than at the Florida resort. Ample train service would be provided by the Pacific Beach & La Jolla line, and special excursion rates would be made for the big crowd that would undoubtedly witness the great speed trials.
As it happened, the Los Angeles & San Diego Beach Railway, formerly the PB & LJ line, was in the midst of a major upgrade, realigning its right of way to enter Pacific Beach directly along the route of today’s Grand Avenue, rather than the circuitous route on today’s Mission Bay Drive and Garnet and Balboa Avenues around the defunct race track. The railroad company had a large force of men at work and was anxious to finish the construction of the cut-off at the earliest possible time. The large crowds anticipated for the proposed speed trials at Pacific Beach would have necessitated many extra trains, which would mean the loss of practically a full day’s work. Since the railroad was unwilling to give up even one day’s work, the speed trials were temporarily postponed.
Barney Oldfield never did race on Pacific Beach, but in 1910 he did put in an appearance at Daytona Beach where he finally broke the Stanley Rocket’s longstanding record by driving his Blitzen Benz at 131 MPH (although the Rocket’s record for a steam car, 127 MPH, was not broken until 2009). Oldfield was also a no-show at the first San Diego County road race held on New Year’s Day 1913, a two-lap 91.7-mile circuit which began and ended at Garnet and Cass Street in Pacific Beach and included check stations at Escondido and South Oceanside. ‘Barney Not In’ was the headline on the Union’s article announcing the official entry list and starting positions.
Barney Oldfield had set a new speed record of 131 miles per hour over a mile course at Daytona Beach in 1910. A year later ‘Wild Bob’ Burman drove the same Blitzen Benz over the same course to set a new record of 141 MPH, covering a mile in 25.5 seconds. Burman also broke Oldfield’s records for the flying mile, half-mile, quarter-mile and kilometer in exhibitions on the day before the first Indianapolis 500 race in May 1911, again using the same Benz (and finished 19th in the actual race on May 30, in a different, smaller Benz, that complied with race rules).
In 1912 Burman acquired a new 200 horsepower Benz and on Christmas Day brought it to Pacific Beach for what apparently was its first speed trial. The San Diego Union headline stated that the stage was set for ‘fast driving by Bob Burman in Big Benz’ and that his ‘whirl over beach’ was likely to make history in auto racing; ‘Today is the time, Pacific Beach the place, while Bob Burman and other noted drivers are the lure that will cause the greatest gathering of motor fans that have ever witnessed a speed contest in San Diego’.
In 1912 San Diego was a city of about 45,000 people and about 3000 cars, and according to the local papers anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 people and 1500 cars descended on Pacific Beach to watch. The railway line ran special trains every 20 minutes from 12:30 to 4 p.m. and added flat cars with board seats to handle passengers that overflowed the regular coaches. Low tide was at 5:14 p.m., sunset at 4:43 and the events began at about 3:00 with a race between a little blue Hupmobile and a Buick. A few minutes later Burman and two of the ‘noted drivers’ raced their Benz cars over a two-mile course with Burman winning handily. Then came the big event, Burman’s attempt to shatter his world mark.
Burman’s first run over the mile course on the beach was clocked at 28 seconds, almost 130 MPH, and a record for a course on the west coast. After winning a second two-mile race against the other two Benz drivers he returned for one more speed trial saying ‘If I don’t have ill luck I’ll make it better than 26 seconds’. However, he did have ill luck; at the half-mile mark the big Benz caught fire and, with flames licking at his hands and face, Burman retreated from his seat to the pointed back of the car which he straddled, steering with his left hand and operating the emergency brake with his right foot. When the blazing car finally came to a stop he got off and was helped to push it into the ocean and put out the fire. ‘If any person wishes me a merry Christmas, I may shoot him’, he said while he fastened a rope to the damaged car so it could be towed away.
A week later Burman was the favorite to win the New Year’s Day road race that started and ended in Pacific Beach, but his replacement Benz broke down on the rough county roads and, after patching the damaged part with wire, he finished the race in last place. ‘Wild Bob’ Burman was killed in a race at Corona in April 1916.