Ralph DePalma, Historic, Class of 1992
Proficient in nearly every type of race car he ever drove, Ralph DePalma won nearly 2,000 races in his 25-year career. They included the Vanderbilt Cup. The Savannah Grand Prize, the Elgin, Illinois, Grand Prix, and the 1915 Indianapolis 500-Mile Race. Despite only one win at Indianapolis, DePalma dominated that annual classic time and time again only to be turned away with mechanical ills just short of victory. His record of leading 613 laps over a 10 year career stood until Al Unser broke it in 1987.
He figured in one of the most dramatic moments in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history when, in 1912, after leading near the finish, he and riding mechanic Rupert Jeffkins ended up pushing their disabled famed "Grey Ghost" Mercedes to the line as Joe Dawson whizzed by for the victory. Noted as a true sportsman for his gracious acceptance of defeat, he became one of the most popular drivers of his or any other era. He competed in 10 Indianapolis 500s, the last in 1925, a race won by his nephew Peter DePaolo.
DePalma was born in Italy and immigrated to the U.S. before the turn of the century. In 1912 and 1914 he was recognized as the AAA National Champion and in 1929 as the Canadian Champion. As late as 1936 he was still setting records in stock cars. His career victory total of 24 championship race wins still ranks high on the all-time list and came in a combination of road and course, dirt track, board track and oval track competition. He also competed successfully in Europe and helped design the Packard V-12, which he drove to a land speed record of 149.87 mph at Daytona Beach in 1919.
He proclaimed his greatest race the 1914 Vanderbilt Cup over the roads of Santa Monica, California, when he beat the famous Barney Oldfield. He and Oldfield were adversaries in numerous lucrative "match races". In later years, DePalma acted as honorary referee for the Indianapolis 500, the final time in 1954. He died in 1956 at age 73.
Ralph DePalma set the standard by which others have been measured. He cast the die that made possible the likes of Foyt, Petty, Andretti and Earnhardt. In gratitude for the heritage he built the motorsports world now pays its respects.