The 103rd Indianapolis 500 event is scheduled to take place on Sunday, May 26, 2019, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indiana. The legendary event has been the premier event for American open wheel racing for decades with roots deeply imbedded in dirt track racing. To honor this heritage, we plan on counting down the top 20 dirt track racers that have won the Indianapolis 500.
Today we profile Raffaele “Ralph” DePalma at #12 on our list. The Italian born DePalma was one of the sports earliest stars. His biography from the International Motorsports Hall of Fame estimates the driver won somewhere in the vicinity of 2,000 races.
His credentials stack up against any drivers from any era. When it came to dirt track racing, DePalma won the 1908, 1909, 1910, and 1911 AAA National Dirt Track Championships. He is honored as having 24 American Champ Car race wins to his credit. Proving he was an international star, DePalma also won the Canadian National Championship in 1929.
DePalma started 10 Indianapolis 500 races, earning the pole position twice. He started on the front row five-times, claimed three podium finishes and six top tens. However, bad luck dogged the driver at Indy. In 1912, he led the race for 196 laps before piston rod failure forced the engine to stop. DePalma and his riding mechanic pushed the car for two laps to complete the race. In those days, only cars finishing the race received prize money.
Bearing failure forced him to retire in the 1913 race. Another connecting rod failure took DePalma out of the race in 1921 after leading 108 laps. A blown head gasket sidelined him in 1923. Despite leading many laps over the 10 entries in the Great American Race, his only win came in 1915 where he led 132 laps of the race. His record of leading 613 laps over a 10 year career stood until Al Unser broke it in 1987.
His last attempt to win the Indianapolis 500-mile race was in 1925. Ironically, his nephew Peter DePaolo won the race. DePalma was considered the gold standard in racing for decades.
He died at his home in South Pasadena, California, from cancer on March 31, 1956 at age 73. DePalma is enshrined in numerous Halls of Fame, including the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan, International Motorsports Hall of Fame, and the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame.