It was car vs airplane in a 1915 Nebraska State Fair race

Auto racer Barney Oldfield challenged an airplane at the 1915 Nebraska State Fair. (Library of Congress photo)
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September 3, 2015 - 6:45am

Auto racing used to be a staple of the Nebraska State Fair, which is happening now in Grand Island. An unusual race drew a huge crowd a century ago.


It was competition, and spectacle. In September 1915, 30,000 people crowded around the dirt race track at the Nebraska State Fair in Lincoln to see something pretty unusual. A car racing an airplane.

Bob Mays, researcher at the Smith Collection Museum of American Speed (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)

 


Barney Oldfield (auto) racing Lincoln Beechey (airplane) in a 1912 race, similar to the 1915 Nebraska State Fair race. (Library of Congress photo)

 


A 1915 Omaha Sun advertisement for the State Fair.

 


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“I was a big deal,” said Bob Mays, a local racing historian and researcher at the Smith Collection Museum of American Speed in Lincoln. “This was two very new mechanical contrivances that the public wanted to see. They wanted to see an automobile go faster than they've ever seen one go before. They wanted to see an airplane. Many of them had never seen an airplane before.”

Driving the car (a front drive Christie, Mays said) was publicity-savvy racer Barney Oldfield. The great-uncle of the Nebraska-born Hollywood journalist of the same name, this Oldfield was a national celebrity who commanded large appearance fees and called himself “master driver of the world.” A colorful character who always raced with a cigar in his mouth.

Flying the biplane was DeLoyd Thompson, who like Oldfield made a very good living barnstorming the country breaking records at races and exhibitions. Airplane versus car races had been going on for a couple years, but this was the first in Nebraska. Mays believes these two master showmen, billed as “champion death cheaters” in newspaper advertisements, didn’t disappoint the State Fair crowd.

“The airplane was flying like 50, 80 feet above the ground,” Mays said. “Very, very close so people got a very close-up look at this thing, and of course the car was throwing dirt and dust all over the place. It was a spectacular image. It just had to be fantastic for these people.”

Oldfield and Thompson tore around the half mile oval at 60 miles an hour, at a time when some towns “restricted cars to five miles an hour so they wouldn’t scare the horses,” Mays said. And there was an element of danger for the fans, crowded against simple wood and wire fences. “Back in those days a lot of fans got hurt and killed with cars going out of control,” Mays said. “Remember (that) these cars primarily have wooden spoke wheels. At 60 miles an hour, if one of those spokes broke that car was going to go out of control, and (it was) wooden fences or just chicken wire fences holding these things back.”

Fortunately the 1915 race in Lincoln was accident-free. Oldfield and his car won the best two-out-of-three competition, but those watching likely remembered the spectacle much longer than the result.

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