A Race to Defy Race

Boxer Jack Johnson loved driving fast. Being black in the early part of the 20th century, this, needless to say, did not sit well with some individuals. They didn’t see a successful athlete enjoying the wealth and status he’d rightfully accumulated through his skill as a world-champion boxer, but rather a black man who didn’t seem to know his proper place. Johnson, a pioneer not only in his sport as the first African-American world champion (1908-1915), but also in the face of Jim Crow-era intolerance, refused to let the color of his skin dictate what he could and couldn’t do. Instead, he embraced his celebrity and all the personal and professional perks that came with it, something white athletes managed without second thought.

Following his remarkable defeat of former heavy-weight champion James J. Jeffries in July of 1910 – an event that sparked nation-wide rioting and led to the deaths of at least 26 people – his public profile had risen to new heights of controversy. Following his 15-round victory, all other fighters refused to face him. Without competition, the ever-competitive Johnson looked to his next love, the automobile. If he couldn’t find anyone to face him in the ring, he would simply issue a challenge to square off on the racetrack.

At that time, the American Automobile Association (AAA) dictated who could race and when. Not surprisingly, the organization banned black drivers from registering. Johnson, however, would not let this stop him and, with the help of one of his white aids, Johnson secured a license under his full given name: John Arthur Johnson. It was only after having issued the license to Johnson that the AAA realized what it had done, subsequently accusing Johnson of registering under false pretenses, rescinding his license and returning his one dollar registration fee.

Johnson fired back that he had done nothing of the sort, having registered under his given name and thus followed the proscribed protocol. The AAA wouldn’t have it and, despite Johnson returning his returned registration fee with an accompanying letter, he was banned from competitive racing. Furthermore, it was announced that any driver who took Johnson up on his challenge to race would find themselves suspended. This warning notwithstanding, Barney Oldfield (who would subsequently be banned for two years) refused to allow Johnson the perceived satisfaction of being the better racer and, consequences be damned, took the $5,000 bait and signed on to race the boxing champ.

Oldfield, a good friend of Jeffries, saw it as a chance to not only avenge his friend’s loss, but also put Johnson in his place. A sound defeat of Johnson on the track, he thought, would prevent the boxer from overstepping his athletic bounds. Johnson saw the impending competition not in terms of a black man racing against a white man, but instead, as he viewed each and every competition in which he engaged, as a test in which the best competitor would come out on top. In racing as in boxing, there were no color lines in the mind of Jack Johnson, only winners and losers.

Despite the hype of a boxing champion taking on the fastest (white) man on wheels, a series of unfortunate events transpired in the weeks leading up to the competition that put a damper on the race. Earlier in October, six spectators were killed and 20 more injured during a Vanderbilt Cup race on Long Island, while Johnson’s former opponent, boxer Stanley Ketchel, had been murdered. The weather – several days of rain turning the track to mud and thus forcing several postponements – didn’t help matters either. By the time Johnson and Oldfield lined up, a mere 5,000 were in attendance at Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn to witness what, under any other circumstances, would’ve been a highly-publicized, historic meeting of two champions.

As it was, a film crew was in attendance to capture footage of the race, however, given Oldfield’s fiercely competitive spirit and fearless approach behind the wheel, it was nearly impossible to capture the two cars within the same frame. Suspecting this to be the case and not wanting to blow the chance for the publicity each hoped the race would bring, they allegedly met on the track several days prior to capture a series of staged race scenes that would (hopefully) show a close race.

By the time the pair crept to the line – Johnson in a six-cylinder 70hp Thomas, Oldfield in a 60hp Knox – the tension and anticipation had become heightened. “I am going to win or run through the fence trying,” Johnson was quoted as saying. There were to be three heats in which the competitors were to complete the five-mile course. As the starting flag dropped, Oldfield slammed his car into gear and sped away, spraying mud over Johnson and his Thomas. Indeed, despite Johnson’s skill behind the wheel and love of speed, he was not able to overtake the much-faster Oldfield, losing the first two heats and thus negating the need for a third.

Of his victory, Oldfield remarked, “I raced Jack Johnson for neither money nor glory, but to eliminate from my profession an invader who would have had to be reckoned with sooner or later.” Conversely, Johnson took his defeat in stride stating simply, “No more of that automobile racing for [me]. I may be able to drive a car fast on a straight road, but I never will take any chances on the turns like Oldfield does.”

Following his two-year suspension from racing, Oldfield continued racing and quenching his need for speed. His name entered popular culture due to the latter, with lead-footed drivers subsequently being asked, “Who do you think you are, Barney Oldfield?” Johnson would continue to fight and face public persecution for the remainder of his life. Tragically, he would die behind the wheel on US Highway 1 in North Carolina in 1946 after speeding away from a diner that refused to serve him due to the color of his skin.