Born in Troia, Foggia, Apulia, Italy, DePalma's family emigrated to the United States when he was eight years old. As a young man of twenty-two, he began racing motorcycles before switching to the automobile dirt track racing circuit in 1909, the year that the American Automobile Association established the national driving championship.
DePalma was immediately successful in car racing and competed in his first Indianapolis 500 in 1911 driving a Simplex. Later that year, DePalma won what today is referred to as the first IndyCar championship racing series that began with the Milwaukee Mile Championship Car Race over a dirt oval in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. However, he is still remembered for the dramatic manner in which he lost the 1912 Indy 500. After leading for nearly 196 of the 200 laps, his Mercedes cracked a piston and only 2 laps remaining, he and his mechanic had to push the car across the finish line to take twelfth place. He went on to earn the U.S. national driving championship that year, but was almost killed in an accident at on October 5th at the West Allis racetrack in Milwaukee, Wisconsin during the 400-mile Vanderbilt Cup. Hospitalized for a considerable time, he recovered and was back to racing the following spring.
In 1912 and again in 1914, DePalma won the Elgin National Trophy at Elgin, Illinois and in 1914 he scored what he called his greatest victory when he beat Barney Oldfield to capture the Vanderbilt Cup in Santa Monica, California. DePalma had been let go by the Mercer Automobile Co. racing team in favor of the great Barney Oldfield and in a Mercedes "Gray Ghost," DePalma showed he was a master tactician in beating Oldfield's much faster car. Things got even better that year when he again won his second U.S. national driving championship. The following year he drove to victory at the 1915 Indianapolis 500.
Ralph DePalma was an intense competitor but one of the most popular racers with his fellow drivers and the fans because of his good sportsmanship, a quality he displayed on and off the track. On February 12, 1919 at Daytona Beach, Florida, he drove a Packard to a world speed record of 149.875 mph over a measured mile. International competition began following the adoption of the three liter engine limit in the U.S. and Europe in 1920. DePalma began the year driving for the French manufacturer, Ballot. His Ballot vehicle was one of the fastest qualifiers at the 1920 Indy but bad luck dogged him in the race. However, DePalma traveled with other Americans to Le Mans to compete in the French Grand Prix. There, he finished second to the Duesenberg driven by fellow American, Jimmy Murphy.
Ralph DePalma had a small role in the 1920 Hollywood film, High Speed and in 1924 played the part of the Champion in an action/drama written by Wilfred Lucas titled Racing for Life. In 1923, he established the DePalma Manufacturing Company in Detroit to build race cars and engines for automobiles and aircraft.
Ralph DePalma retired from racing after a career in which he competed in 2,889 races, winning an astonishing 2,557. He died in South Pasadena, California in 1956 and was interred in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California. In 1973, he was made a posthumous member of the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan. In 1991, he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
|Indianapolis 500 Winners|
Harroun • Dawson • Goux • Thomas • DePalma • Resta • Wilcox • Chevrolet • Murphy • Corum • Boyer • DePaolo • Lockhart • Souders • Keech • Arnold • Schneider • Frame • Cummings • Petillo • Roberts • Davis • Robson • Holland • Parsons • Wallard • Ruttman • Sweikert • Flaherty • Hanks • Bryan • Rathmann • Jones • Clark • Hill • Andretti • Donohue • Sneva • Sullivan • Rahal • Villeneuve • Lazier • Cheever • Brack • Montoya • de Ferran • Rice • Wheldon • Hornish