Early motor racing in Mercedes cars is closely associated with the name Ralph de Palma. One of the highlights in his career was February 26, 1914. At the wheel of a Mercedes racing car named "Gray Ghost", the American of Italian origin competed for the Vanderbilt Cup staged in Santa Monica, California/USA in that year – a thrilling race which he won, as he had done already in 1912, in a 140 hp Mercedes Grand Prix racing car. This, however, had not been foreseeable after the start.
The trade journal "Automobile Quarterly" reported that Ralph de Palma was not to be discovered among the leading cars in the early stages of the race – much in contrast to his main competitor, Barney Oldfield, who really put his foot down, at the expense of his tires. Even in those days, driving skill was not everything that counted; the tactical approach to fuel quantities, tires and pit stops also played a role – and this was one of Ralph de Palma's strengths. Unlike the others, he didn’t drive recklessly but nevertheless moved closer to the leading pack bit by bit. When Oldfield turned off into the pits for a change of tires on the thirteenth lap, de Palma had pushed his 37/95 hp Mercedes into second position. Five laps later, he was out in the lead. Oldfield, running on fresh tires, caught up with de Palma quickly and overtook him. All other competitors had long since fallen behind – this had become a duel among two cars.
Another ten laps to go. The spectators – an enormous crowd of 200,000 people – cheered the cars on frenetically, enjoying the thrill. De Palma caught up with Oldfield in the bends, only to fall behind again on the straights. Then he realized that the front left tire on Oldfield's car began to crumble, and he saw his chance in prompting Oldfield to put in another pit stop. Oldfield reduced his speed to save the tires. De Palma overtook him and clearly signaled to his pit crew that he would come in on the next lap, hoping that Oldfield had seen the signal and believed that his competitor needed new tires, water or oil. The clever ruse proved to have been unnecessary: Oldfield's worn-out tire burst just a few moments later, forcing him to come into the pits. After that, he did not succeed in catching up with de Palma again. The gray Mercedes was the first car to cross the finishing line, and Ralph de Palma had won the Vanderbilt Cup. At the same time, he had provided ample proof of the car's reliability: it had reached a top speed of 121.5 km/h on a total distance of 470 kilometers, distributed to 35 laps.
In retrospect, there is one thing that can safely be said about Ralph de Palma: he was a truly great racing driver. He was successful not only during the early years of motor racing – his career lasted 27 years. During this time, he competed in 2889 races, most of them on sand tracks, and won 2557 of these. He is the only driver who ever won races on every type of track: hillclimbs, sand tracks, wood tracks, concrete tracks, paved tracks, you name it.
Ralph de Palma was born in Troia, Italy, on December 31, 1882, the son of a hairdresser. He was nine when his parents emigrated to America with him and his three brothers. His father set himself up with his own hairdresser's shop in Brooklyn/New York, and all four sons learnt the craft from him.
Young Ralph soon became interested in bicycle racing. Working in his father's hairdresser's shop and additionally delivering vegetables, he earned the money to buy his first bicycle. In 1897, aged fifteen, he competed in his first race in New York. He clinched his first victory two years later, in the Velodrome of Vailsburg, New Jersey. Cycling had become his passion, so he trained as a bicycle maker and started working in a large bicycle store. When his boss obtained the dealership rights for "Indian" motorcycles, talented young de Palma was allowed to drive a couple of laps on a motor bike – to be captured by a new fascination. From then on, he competed in motorcycle races.
The probably most strangest of these should be mentioned at this point: it was an amateur race over 16 miles (approx. 26 km) in the Coney Island Driving Park, with just six competitors lining up at the start. One after the other dropped out because of engine damage – but not de Palma on his Indian. He crossed the finishing line as the winner of the race for which three medals – gold, silver and bronze – were held in store. The racing organizers were so happy that at least one competitor had successfully finished the race and had thus spared them from looking like fools that they gave de Palma two prizes, the gold medal for the winner and, for some mysterious reason, the bronze medal as well. The organizers then asked de Palma to top things by driving a mile at the highest possible speed – and de Palma was only too happy to oblige. In the process, he established a speed record – and received the remaining silver medal as a reward.
Around 1904, his interests and professional activities moved to cars. In the same year, he even got a job as a track marshal in the first race for the Vanderbilt Cup – and his passion for motor sport on four wheels was roused. He was determined to build his own racing car. He received support from his employer, and by 1906, the car was ready, powered by a 45 hp four-cylinder engine. However, the car was rejected by the American Automobile Association (AAA) because it allegedly did not conform with the racing regulations in several points. De Palma was determined to modify the car accordingly but was then offered a price for it he couldn't turn down.
Fred Moscovics, a car accessories dealer from New York, had had a look at the car and recognized de Palma's talent. He consequently offered him a job as a racing driver. He had good contacts with the Allen-Kingston car factory where he showed de Palma around immediately after signing him on. De Palma, in his turn, learnt almost in passing during the tour that he had already been registered for a car race at the wheel of an Allen-Kingston – a complete nobody in this business. De Palma started into this race in reverse. Lining up at the start with the engine running, he didn't notice he moved forward a few inches and across the starting line. The starter saw this and instructed de Palma to move back. The second de Palma engaged reverse gear, the starting pistol was fired. Needless to say that this race was not exactly a success for de Palma. Incidentally, one of his competitors in that race was Barney Oldfield.
De Palma had ample opportunity to prove his talent in the following years. In 1909, for instance, he emerged as the winner from 34 races and established 18 world records. De Palma was now a member of the motor sport elite.
In 1908, he changed over to the importer of Fiat cars which were highly successful in motor sport, driving the dashing "Cyclone", a car that was by far superior to other cars in terms of its engineering, with a four-cylinder engine developing 60 hp. In his very first race at the wheel of a Cyclone, de Palma scored a superior victory – his car was virtually invincible. He continued to drive Fiat cars until 1911. In the following years, he changed makes several times, driving Packard, Studebaker, Chrysler, Ford and others.
In 1912 he had the 140 hp Mercedes Grand Prix racing car at his disposal and entered it not only in the Vanderbilt Cup but also in the 500 mile race of Indianapolis. De Palma soon conquered the lead, everything went smoothly: after 250 miles, he was two complete laps ahead of his competitors and as much as five laps after 450 miles. The race seemed to have been decided; nobody doubted that de Palma would win, and the spectators started going home. Then suddenly, on lap 197, three laps before the finish, the Mercedes lost power – a connecting rod had broken. De Palma continued with just three of the cylinders working. His speed dropped and the driver in second place rushed past him. At 15 miles per hour (24 km/h), de Palma tackled the 198th lap, still leading in terms of time. Finally the engine stopped altogether. But de Palma did not give up. Together with his racing mechanic, he pushed his car, weighing just under 1.3 tons, towards the finishing line – a brave though rather useless gesture where the outcome of the race was concerned. The race was won by someone else, but the spectators celebrated de Palma.
Ralph de Palma was an extremely fair sportsman. According to reports dating back to 1912, his Mercedes once brushed an opponent's car in the final spurt and skidded off course. While still in hospital, he told journalists that the accident had not been the other man's fault. In another race, a boy crank-started his engine but the engine hit back and the crank broke the boy's arm. After the race, which was won by de Palma, he didn't show up for the winner's ceremony to receive he cup; he preferred to spend the evening by the injured boy's bedside.
Time and again, de Palma also competed in races in Europe, for instance in the French Grand Prix in 1912 and 1914. In the 1914 race, de Palma drove a British Vauxhall – but places one through to three were taken by a trio driving 115 hp Mercedes Grand Prix racing cars. Two of these were confiscated by the French authorities before they left the country. De Palma traveled to Untertürkheim to talk to Paul Daimler, asking him whether he could buy the third Mercedes. Daimler consented, fixing a price of 6,000 dollars for the car plus spares. De Palma was happy and during the following days watched the car being overhauled. On July 25, 1914 Daimler summoned de Palma to his office and urged him to pack his suitcases immediately, telling him that the vehicle papers and a road map showing him the way to Antwerp were ready to be collected. From Antwerp, the car was to be shipped to America on a German freighter called "Vaterland" ('Fatherland'). De Palma himself left Europe on the steamer "Olympic" from Le Havre, to learn only a few days later, out on the Atlantic, that war had broken out in Europe. It has never been officially clarified why Daimler helped bringing a German racing car out of the country in those days. De Palma had his own theory, saying that motor racing was an international sport. Over and above this, he had clinched the only Mercedes victories in America, and Daimler's help could have been a reward.
In 1915, de Palma tackled the 500 miles in Indianapolis in his new Mercedes – and again a connecting rod broke under the enormous strain, three laps before the finish. But this time, the engine kept working and the Mercedes crossed the finishing line as the winner.
He drove different cars in the following years, in 1919, for instance, a white Packard with streamlined bodywork and a huge V12 engine. In this car, de Palma thundered along the sand at Daytona Beach, Florida, at a top speed of 149.87 miles per hour (241 km/h) and thus became the fastest man on earth.
The 500 miles of Indianapolis were on his agenda again in 1920. Shortly before the flying start, a tire burst on de Palma's French Ballot. The tire was replaced quickly but de Palma was a full lap behind the competition. The performance he then put in became legend: he thundered along at enormous speed, overtaking one car after the after. After 150 miles, de Palma had finally conquered the lead. But then, bad luck stroke again, on the last laps before the finish: flames leaped out of the engine compartment. De Palma reduced his speed to 80 miles per hour (approx. 130 km/h). In the pits, his mechanic crept underneath the engine hood and put out the fire with a hand-held extinguisher. However, the engine caught fire again on the next lap. Again, the brave mechanic did his fire-fighting job, but then the engine stalled, with an empty fuel tank, as de Palma suspected. The mechanic ran back to the pits to fetch a fuel can. But de Palma had meanwhile succeeded in starting the car again, the problem having been ignition failure. Only four of the Ballot's eight cylinders were still working. De Palma just made it across the finishing line – in fifth place.
After this feat, Ralph de Palma was invited by Ernest Ballot to compete in the 1921 Grand Prix in Le Mans. He and his mechanic reckoned that they could gain a full six minutes over the entire racing distance if gears were changed by the co-driver and the driver concentrated on steering the car. So they moved the shift lever into the middle, mounting it on top of the transmission housing. Ballot was incensed when he saw this. He gave instructions to move the shift lever back into its original position. De Palma finished the race in second place.
De Palma also drove Chrysler cars, winning a hillclimb race and a track race with this brand. He also competed in races at the wheel of Chrysler cars in 1925.
De Palma drove his last Indianapolis race in 1925. He clinched the Canadian championship in 1929 and in the following years worked for Packard, Studebaker, Chrysler, Ford, Ranger Aircraft Engines and General Petroleum Corporation. In April 1954, Ralph de Palma was admitted to the Racing Hall of Fame of the Henry Ford Museum in Greenfield Village, Dearborn. He died in Pasadena, California, on March 31, 1956, aged 73.
The successes of Ralph de Palma on Mercedes
Vanderbilt Cup, Milwaukee: 2nd
American Grand Prix, Savannah: 3rd
Elgin Race: 1st, twice, lap record
Vanderbilt Cup, Milwaukee: 1st
Vanderbilt Cup, Santa Monica: 1st, speed record
American Grand Prix: 4th
Elgin National Trophy: 1st, twice
Brighton Beach (September): 1st, four times
Trenton: 1st, three times
Brighton Beach (November): 1st, four times
Vanderbilt Cup: 4th
Kansas City: 1st
Atlantic City: 1st, twice