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WHAT A glorious time it must have been. Airplanes were barely a decade old, cars only a little more familiar. Both were novelties that people loved to watch. Race driver Barney Oldfield was known as the Speed King. Lincoln Beachey was King of the Birdmen. Both were consummate showmen. And promoter William Hickman Pickens, agent for both, brought them together in the Championship of the Universe.
Starting with flying balloons in 1905 at the age of 17, Beachey made a career of aviation expositions, including the Dominguez Air Meet, the first of its kind in the U.S.
Shortly after the 1910 Dominguez Air Meet, Glenn Curtiss taught Beachey how to fly an airplane. Before long, Beachey was amazing the crowd by snatching a handkerchief off the field with his plane’s wingtip. On June 27, 1911, Linc entertained a crowd of 150,000 with his flight around Niagara Falls. He passed through the mist of both falls, skimmed the water and flew beneath the Niagara Falls International Bridge.
Berna Eli Oldfield was making a name for himself too, as Barney. He began racing bicycles in 1894, with motorcycles and automobiles soon following. In 1902, he drove Henry Ford’s 999 to victory in a grudge match with another pioneer automaker Alexander Winton.
Barney was hard- and high-living, making as much as $4000 dollars (think $96,000 in today’s cash) for an appearance at a fairground racetrack. He gave spectators their money’s worth: Races were arranged in heats. He’d win the first by a nose, then purposely let a local ace win the second. Then he’d come back in grand style to take the finale.
Promotor Will Pickens’ Challenge of the Universe set the Demon of the Sky against the Daredevil of the Ground. Pickens also made sure there were high fences around each venue so folks would need tickets to see the competition.
It has been claimed that Beachey’s Curtiss biplane was faster than Oldfield’s 100-hp Fiat racer, though specifications suggest otherwise. A Deperdussin Monocoque was the first aircraft to break 100 mph; this, in 1912. By then, the Curtiss flown by Beachey was old technology, with a top speed of perhaps 50 mph. Oldfield’s Fiat Cyclone race car began life in 1908. Motor magazine, April 1908, cites it had already held a world’s long-distance record of 300 miles in 233 minutes 44 seconds (i.e., 77 mph over this extended distance).
It’s likely that Oldfield was piloting the quicker mount in 1914, though I suspect this hardly diminished the show. It’s recognized that he, Beachey and Pickens arranged finishes to satisfy the whims of spectators. They “competed” at 35 venues around the country, including the Emeryville Track, Oakland, California; Los Angeles; Salt Lake City; Hamline, Minnesota; Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio; and Brighton Beach, New York.
The Brighton Beach ticket promised added excitement in Looping the Loop and Flying Upside Down (this last phrase’s typography inverted). Ascot promised “8 consecutive 8” loops. The Salt Lake City appearance hyped blowing up a battleship in a lagoon, a regular Beachey trick recreated a year later using a fake U.S.S. Oregon filled with explosives and moored a mile offshore of San Francisco.
According to an August 13, 1914, newspaper, Beachey’s demonstration at Cincinnati’s Coney Island Amusement Park was “a dazzling and remarkable exhibition of aeroplane flights…. After a bit of skirmishing, he dropped several bombs on a battleship created on the eastern end of the infield of the race track. The bombs were directed with unerring aim while Beachey flew at great speed.” Perhaps the explosives lodged in the mock battleship helped.
“Yesterday’s race between the aeroplane and automoibile,” the account continued, “was the first contest of its kind ever staged near Cincinnati, and the contestants were cheered to the echo. On the last lap Beachey was hardly more than twenty-five feet above Oldfield coming down the home stretch.”
Together, Beachey and Oldfield earned more than $250,000 (figure around $6 million today) in their 1914 Championship of the Universe. Who won? I’d say Linc Beachey and Barney Oldfield were both champions, with thousands of spectators the winners. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, Simanaitis Says.com, 2015