| There are many names revered in motor
racing circles, but among those which represent the true pioneers of the sport, none is
more so than Ralph DePalma.
The word "legend" is tossed about freely
when used to recognize those of singular accomplishments, but for DePalma, it is only
correct to do so. He won about 2,000 races a remarkable figure including the Vanderbilt
Cup, the Savannah Grand Prize, the Elgin, Ill., Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500. His
career spanned 25 years.
He was the consummate competitor, yet he remained a
true sportsman. Lore has it that, after the 1913 Indianapolis 500, when his car was
sidelined after just 13 laps due to mechanical ills, he told a reporter, "It's the
luck of the game." Today, the phrase has been so oft-repeated it has become a cliche.
When chasing Caleb Bragg for the victory in
Milwaukee in 1912, DePalma crashed heavily on the last lap. Taken out of the ambulance
bleeding profusely and suffering internal injuries, DePalma said, "Boys, don't forget
that Caleb Bragg wasn't to blame. He gave me all the road." For such gallantry in
defeat - and for his exciting victories - DePalma was vastly popular.
Born in Italy in 1883, DePalma came to the United
States in 1893. He began racing soon after, becoming a dirt track king from 1908 through
1911 and was a national champion in 1912 and 1914. In 1914, he heat the great Barney
Oldfield in the Vanderbilt Cup, run over the roads of Santa Monica, Calif.,in what DePalma
called his greatest race.
Ironically, it was Oldfield who was unceremoniously
hired by the Mercer factory team to replace a dumbfounded DePalma that year after DePalma
had put the Mercer car through its paces a year earlier. DePalma vowed to best his rival
at every opportunity and got his chance in the Vanderbilt Cup.
Racing a revived Mercedes Gray Ghost, DePalma
suffered mechanical problems and only after the assistance of an associate who offered an
engine bearing made of strong metal did he qualify for the race, some 40 seconds behind
Running a smooth, calculated race, DePalma moved
through the field while Oldfield sped ahead. By the 13th lap, he was in fifth place.
On the 18th lap, DePalma assumed the lead when
Oldfield pitted. When Oldfield returned, the battle was on and Oldfield took the lead on
the 25th lap, just 10 from the finish. But there was one significant difference.
Oldfield's pressing driving style had worn his tires. DePalma's were safe. However,
DePalma slowed appreciably and signaled he was going to pit. Oldfield sped into the lead
and then pitted the next time around, confident he had the race won.
However, as he sat in the pits, DePalma and the Gray
Ghost sped by. DePalma had never pitted. With cold calculation and daring, he had won and
beaten his rival.
He won at Elgin that year and followed that with his
victory in the Indianapolis 500. However, perhaps more famous that his Indy win was his
loss in 1912. It is depicted by DePalma and his mechanic, Rupert Jeffkins, pushing the
Gray Ghost across the finish line - and to disqualification - as Joe Dawson whizzed by to
take the victory. That image has done more to establish the 500 as a premier race than had
DePalma kept racing. As late as 1936, he was setting records in stock cars. He really
didn't need to do 50; his reputation was firmly established. But then, what else would one
expect of a great racer?
Ralph DePalma, Inducted 1991
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