CONSIDERED BY MANY as the greatest racing driver the United States has ever known, Ralph de Palma was one of the most successful. Over a 27-year period, he participated in approximately 2800 speed events and won over 2500 of them. Above all else, he was a pleasant, friendly man, always willing to offer advice and assistance, even to rival teams. A true sportsman, he accepted defeat with grace.
De Palma, one of four brothers, was born in Southern Italy in 1883, and taken to the United States by his parents ten years later. He soon forgot his native tongue and became accepted as an American.
De Palma began racing in 1908, a time when dirt and board-track racing was prevalent - road-racing was then outlawed and Indianapolis had not been built. From the start, he was a success and was recognised as the leading dirt and board track driver.
The Famous "Sleeve-Valve" Mercedes Grey Ghost
Soon De Palma was competing in sand races, on closed road tracks and, in 1911, the first Indianapolis 500-mile race. The 1912 Indianapolis 500-mile race is often cited as an example of de Palma's sportsmanship. Driving his sleeve-valve Mercedes Grey Ghost, de Palma seemed an easy winner when a piston
collapsed with only ten miles to run.
Aussie Rupert Jeffkins
Running on three of its four cylinders, the Mercedes was nursed round while second man Joe Dawson's National began to make up its five-lap deficit. As de Palma completed his 198th lap, Dawson was only three laps behind and racing at twice the speed. Three-quarters of a lap later the Mercedes coughed its last and de Palma said to his riding mechanic, Australian Rupert Jeffkins: 'I guess it's time to start walking, and we might as well take the car with us'.
As the pair pushed their heavy Mercedes, the National completed its three laps to win the victor's laurels. However, the crowd's cheering was shared between Dawson and de Palma, who took defeat like a man. Utterly exhausted, de Palma went up to his young rival, shook his hand and warmly congratulated him.
Also that year, de Palma had his most serious accident. In the 1912 Grand Prize road race near Milwaukee, he crashed on the last lap, while attempting to overtake a rival, Caleb Bragg. Seriously injured and bleeding, he was brought back to race headquarters in the ambulance. On being taken out, he saw press reporters and whispered to them: 'Boys, don't forget that Bragg wasn't to blame. He gave me all the road'.
In 1914, the French Peugeot team arrived in America for the Indianapolis 500-mile race and team manager W. F. Bradley told de Palma that his drivers didn't know the turns well. De Palma said to them: 'Just tuck yourself in behind me for a few laps and I will show you the best place to enter the bends'.
The Vanderbilt Cup Race
De Palma's most meritorious victory came in 1914. The previous year he had been appointed captain of the Mercer team, but the American cars were frail and it was only early in 1914 that they began to show reliability as well as speed.
The Vanderbilt Cup race, run around the roads at Santa Monica, was to be held at the end of February and, for this event, Mercer executives went behind de Palma's back and hired Barney OIdfield. This so upset de Palma, who was not consulted until after the deal, that he resigned on the spot.
Without his trusty steed, De Palma's old friend J. Schroeder brought the Mercedes Grey Ghost out of retirement, hastily prepared it and rushed it to California where practice had already commenced. De Palma's practice laps were 40 secs slower round the 8-mile circuit than Oldfield or the other Mercer drivers; prospects looked poor.
|de Palma's first S74 in action during the 1912 French Grand Prix.
de Palma with his riding mechanic Tom Alley in August 1912.
de Palma and his riding mechanic Australian Rupert Jeffkins pushing their car at the 1912 Indy 500.
Ralph de Palma and his Packard V-12 in 1919.
In the early stages, de Palma was well out of the reckoning, but steady and reliable driving was rewarded with fifth place as the race progressed. Then the leader crashed; Oldfield had to stop for oil and tyres; a broken propeller shaft eliminated another leader. De Palma and the Mercedes Grey Ghost were ahead!
On the 25th lap, with ten to go, Oldfield's superior speed told, and he retook the lead. He didn't draw away, however, as de Palma used every tactic in the book to remain in contact, slipstreaming to great advantage.
De Palma had not made a pit-stop, but he could see OIdfield would probably have to, as his wild driving was causing the tyres
to wear rapidly. On one lap, knowing that Oldfield was watching him, de Palma slowed as if to come into the pits. OIdfield felt that the race was now his, reckoned he had a comfortable lead and, to play safe, decided to stop next time round for new tyres. As he sat in the pits the old Grey Ghost raced by into the lead.
De Palma had never stopped; he had eased off to lure Oldfield into thinking he had! Try as he might, Oldfield could not reduce the deficit and had to be content with second place. European racegoers saw de Palma compete in the 1912 and 1914 French Grands Prix. Driving a Fiat, he was disqualified on the first occasion owing to his being unfamiliar with the refuelling regulations.
In 1914, as a member of the Vauxhall team, gearbox trouble put him out. He also went to Germany (only a few days before the outbreak of World War 1) to purchase a new Mercedes, He took it back to the United States where he won several important races, including the 1915 Indianapolis 500-mile race.
The Liberty Engine
In 1919, working at Packard, de Palma developed the well known Liberty engine; also, with a 15-litre VI2 Packard, he smashed the measured-mile record at Daytona Beach at 149.87 mph. The following season saw de Palma become a member of the French Ballot team. After some American events, he raced for the team in the 1921 French Grand Prix
at Le Mans, finishing second to his compatriot Jimmy Murphy in the American Duesenberg.
Unfortunately Ballot and de Palma had their disagreements, one of them concerning the French race. De Palma and his nephew Peter de Paolo, his riding mechanic, devised a system of which Ballot disapproved. Not quite automatic tranmission - de Palma arranged a neat gear-change manoeuvre whereby he would signal and declutch while de Paolo changed gear! This enabled de Palma to keep both hands on the steering
wheel and, perhaps, gain a fraction of a second here and there.
Ballot happened to witness these actions and insisted the gear lever
be moved to the right-hand side, out of de Paolo's reach. Back in the United States, de Palma continued racing until 1934, still winning and establishing records although well into his 40s.
He drove for Duesenberg, Packard and Miller in major races and then concentrated on 'exhibition' races on the smaller tracks, such as those on which he had started his career.
de Palma also performed record-breaking and endurance trials for Chrysler. The depression of the 1930s, however, meant that it was no longer profitable to race and, at the age of 51, de Palma finally retired. He became a consultant engineer to the Mobil Oil Company and was busily employed by them until his death in 1956. He was 73.
Ralph de Palma's Indy 500 Track Record:
DePalma's total of 613 laps led stood as the all time Indy lap leader record until bested by Al Unser on the 200th lap of the 1987 Indianapolis 500.