Ralph DePalma is synonymous with the Indianapolis 500 and the early days of automobile racing, a time when simply getting behind the wheel was an act of sheer bravery. DePalma is almost as famous for the races he didn’t win as for the ones that he did; the man experienced almost as many brushes with death as checkered flags.
He was born Raffaele DePalma in Biccari, Italy, on December 19, 1882; in 1893, the family emigrated to the United States. Along with a new country, he took a new name, changing it to Ralph, the Americanization. In his youth, DePalma raced bicycles with moderate success, and 1904 at age 22, he began racing motorcycles. In 1908, he switched from two wheels to four and began racing automobiles on the dirt-track circuit, which was the year that the American Automobile Association established the national driving championship.
DePalma was a natural behind the wheel and found immediate success. In 1911, he placed sixth at the first 500-mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and went on to win the first Milwaukee Mile Championship Car race. The next year at Indy, DePalma lost in epic fashion. After leading the pack for 196 out of the 200 laps, the 9.6-liter four-cylinder engine of his Mercedes—known evocatively as the “Gray Ghost”—threw a connecting rod with only two laps remaining. He and his mechanic, Rupert Jeffkins, jumped out and managed to push the car across the finish line and took eleventh place. “No race is won until the tape is crossed and I realized that all the time,” he said during his post-race interview. “It’s hard luck, but it’s all in the game. I did my best, and since I’ve lost out, I’m for the man who picked the prize.”
He was one of three racers from a field of nine who finished the race when he won the Elgin National Trophy Race in August and went on to earn the U.S. national driving championship that year. On October 5 at the Vanderbilt Cup race in Milwaukee, DePalma crashed mightily on the final lap while chasing Caleb Bragg for the checkered flag. As he was taken out of the ambulance, bleeding heavily after suffering injuries including being impaled by a corn stalk, DePalma wheezed, “Boys, don’t forget that Caleb Bragg wasn’t to blame. He gave me all the road.” His fans loved him for his bravery and valiant sportsmanship. DePalma was hospitalized for 11 weeks but recovered and was soon back to racing.
The year 1914 was rich with victories for DePalma, the highlight of which was his win over the legendary Barney Oldfield at the Vanderbilt Cup. The Vanderbilt was held on the roads of Santa Monica, California, and DePalma would call this 1914 win his greatest race. The Mercer team had unceremoniously fired DePalma after the 1913 season and replaced him with Oldfield. DePalma swore revenge and got his chance at the 1914 Cup. Behind the wheel of the resurrected Gray Ghost, DePalma experienced mechanical difficulties and qualified some 40 seconds behind Oldfield. During the race, slowly and systematically, DePalma diced through the field; by lap 13, he was in fifth place. On lap 18, DePalma took the lead after Oldfield pitted. When Oldfield returned to the race, the battle was joined. Oldfield took the lead by lap 25, with just 10 laps to go. Oldfield’s relentless driving had worn down his tires while DePalma’s were still in good shape. DePalma slowed significantly and signaled that he would pit. Oldfield sped past DePalma to take the lead and then pitted on the next lap, certain that the race was his. As Oldfield sat in the pits, however, DePalma and the Gray Ghost shot by; DePalma had not pitted after all. With a cold and calculating killer instinct, he had won and bested his rival. He finished up 1914 by winning his second U.S. national driving championship.
DePalma continued to have success in the later Teens and Twenties. He would win the 1915 Indy 500 and continued to race there through 1925. At Daytona Beach on February 12, 1919, he set a world speed record of 149.875 mph over a measured mile in his V-12-powered Packard 905 Special. In 1921, he finished second in the French Grand Prix at Le Mans and won the Canadian national championship in 1929. DePalma retired from racing in 1936.
Over the course of his career, DePalma competed in 2889 races in the United States and Europe and won 2557 for a winning percentage of 88.5 percent. DePalma died of cancer at age 73 at his home in South Pasadena, California, on March 31, 1956 as one of the winningest racers of all time, and one of the most beloved by fans and rivals alike.