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DePalma with his riding mechanic Tom Alley in August 1912
DePalma and his riding mechanic pushing their car at the 1912 Indy 500
Ralph DePalma and his Packard V-12 in 1919
DePalma in his Packard '905' Special in 1919
DePalma in a crowd after setting the World speed record in 1919
Ralph DePalma (December 18, 1882March 31, 1956) was an Italian-American racecar driving champion, most notably winner of the 1915 Indianapolis 500. His entry at the International Motorsports Hall of Famemarker estimates that he won about 2000 races, and he is credited with winning 24 American Champ car races. He is inducted in numerous halls of fame. He competed on boards and dirt road courses and ovals.

Racing career

Born in Troiamarker, Apuliamarker, Italymarker, DePalma's family emigrated to the United Statesmarker in 1893. As a young man he tried bicycle racing with mixed success, but at the age 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. In 1911, DePalma won the first Milwaukee Milemarker Championship Car race. However, he is still remembered for the dramatic manner in which he lost the 1912 Indianapolis 500. After leading the entire race since the third lap, for some 196 of the 200 laps, his Mercedes cracked a piston and with only 2 laps remaining, he and his mechanic had to push the car across the finish line to take twelfth place. This Mercedes remains on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum. He went on to earn the U.S. national driving championship that year, but was almost killed in an accident at on October 5 at the Milwaukee Milemarker 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, Illinoismarker and in 1914 he scored what he called his greatest victory when he beat Barney Oldfield to capture the Vanderbilt Cup on the roads of Santa Monica, Californiamarker. 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. He ended that year winning his second U.S. national driving championship. The following year, 1915, he drove to victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a Mercedes 4.5 liter Gp car.

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. In June 1917 he lost to Barney Oldfield in a series of 10 to 25 mile match races at the Milwaukee Milemarker. On February 12, 1919 at Daytona Beach, Florida, he drove a Packard to a world speed record of over a measured mile (1.6 km). 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 won the pole position for the 1920 Indy race and he led for many laps but bad luck dogged him in the race (faulty bearings on the Ballot) and he did not finish. Then in 1921 DePalma traveled with other Americans to Le Mansmarker to compete in the French Grand Prix. There, he finished second to the Duesenberg driven by fellow American, Jimmy Murphy. DePalma won the Canadian national championship in 1929.

DePalma later competed in stock cars until he retired from racing in 1936. In his career, he competed in 2,889 races and won 2,557. He was an honorary referee for the Indianapolis 500, the last time in 1954.


He died in South Pasadena, Californiamarker in 1956 and was interred in the Holy Cross Cemeterymarker in Culver City, Californiamarker.

Media appearances

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.


DePalma was the brother of 500 competitor John DePalma and the uncle of 1925 Indy winner Peter DePaolo.


Indy 500 results

Year Car Start Qual Rank Finish Laps Led Retired
1911 2 2 12 6 200 4 Running
1912 4 4 86.020 5 11 198 196 Rod
1913 21 12 76.300 24 23 15 0 Bearing
1915 2 2 98.580 2 1 200 132 Running
1919 4 4 98.200 10 6 200 93 Running
1920 2 1 99.150 1 5 200 79 Running
1921 4 1 100.750 1 12 112 108 Rod
1922 17 3 99.550 3 4 200 0 Running
1923 2 11 100.420 5 15 69 0 Head gasket
1925 8 18 108.607 6 7 200 0 Running
Totals 1594 612
Starts 10
Poles 2
Front Row 5
Wins 1
Top 5 3
Top 10 6
Retired 4

  • 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.


  1. Early years at the Milwaukee Mile
  2. Yates, Brock The Indianapolis 500: The Story of the Speedway. 1956. Harper Bros., New York. Page 25.
  3. Yates, Brock The Indianapolis 500: The Story of the Speedway. 1956. Page 27.

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