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The ‘Other’ Dario: Resta Starred in Early Days of IndyCar Racing

Have you heard the story of a race driver named Dario - a man of Italian descent and raised in Great Britain? He won a shortened Indianapolis 500 and became the series champion, a master of road courses and ovals alike.

Dario Franchitti, right? 

Well, what about the “other” Dario?

Writer Bert Lennon described Dario Radul Resta in 1915 as “humble, even bashful,” and suggested that outside his car he was a shrinking violet. Certainly the persona Resta projected was apart from the image of fearless daredevils the newspapers of the day manufactured.

“I win because I have the best car, and I am lucky,” Resta said after dominating the premier road races of the United States in 1915, the American Grand Prize and the Vanderbilt Cup.

Modesty was surprising to writers accustomed to bravado from American sports icons. Resta had only recently arrived in the United States, and his two emphatic wins against American stars served notice he could deliver big results.

Born in Livorno, Italy in 1884, Resta was whisked away to England by his parents before he turned 2 years old. An athletic youth, Resta mastered ice skating, eventually becoming the British amateur figure skating champion in 1911. Like many budding race drivers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he also raced bicycles on board tracks.

An interest in automobiles attracted him to selling cars for France’s Panhard in England, but eventually he established a dealership where he showcased a variety of European marques. With the opening of the high-banked, concrete Brooklands speedway in 1907, Resta was drawn to auto racing. 

More than any other track, Brooklands was Resta’s second home. In 1908 he drove an Austin to win the Naval and Military Cup and set several speed records such as hitting 100.84 mph for the flying half-mile. Later that year he drove in the prestigious French Grand Prix but could only muster a 19th-place finish.

Over the next three years, he confined most of his racing to meets at Brooklands and expanded his automobile business. He returned to the French Grand Prix in 1912, finishing fourth with a Sunbeam. Back at Brooklands, he set numerous records, including world marks for 900 and 1,000 miles at 75.92 and 75.99 mph, respectively.

A ruptured oil tank in Resta’s Sunbeam spoiled his chances for victory in the 1913 French GP, but he had another record-setting year at Brooklands. Teaming with Jean Chassagne and Kenelm Lee Guinness in a Sunbeam, Resta established 41 records from 200 to 1,000 miles, averaging about 90 mph. 

With war brewing in Europe, Resta found the best opportunities in the auto industry in America. In 1914, he took a position at the Peugeot New York import office.

In a previous trip to America, he delivered a Mercedes to Wall Street financier George Wishart. Wishart was the father of the daring young driver Spencer Wishart, who introduced Resta to his younger sister, Mary. Resta and Mary were married when Resta came to New York.

Not long after Resta’s arrival in New York, he was given the opportunity to drive a 1913 Grand Prix Peugeot on American circuits. Driving arguably the best race car in the world was cause for celebration for Resta. It also was cause for distress for new bride Mary, whose brother Spencer had lost his life at the Elgin road race in August 1914. Mary never made a secret of her desire for her husband to quit racing, but in 1915 he was at the peak of his abilities.

To the American racing community, Resta seemed to have parachuted upon them out of nowhere. After convincing wins in the Vanderbilt Cup and American Grand Prize, some speculated he would struggle at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was wishful thinking.

Resta’s experience on the 2.75-mile Brooklands circuit, a closed course similar to an oval, helped the Italian-born Englishman feel at home at the Brickyard. The 1915 Indianapolis 500 boiled down to a duel between Resta and another Italian-born driver, Ralph De Palma. 

Resta was leading when a tire let go on Lap 135. His Peugeot grazed the fourth-turn wall and damaged his steering. De Palma’s 1914 French Grand Prix Mercedes paced out the remaining laps, with Resta hanging on to finish second.

A month later, on June 26, 1915 at Chicago’s 2-mile board track, Resta dominated. He qualified at a breathtaking 110.100 mph, fully 6 mph faster than the next competitor, Earl Cooper in a Stutz. Leading 154 of the 250 laps, Resta proved unstoppable.

Resta’s Brooklands experience served him well on the high-banked board speedways. At the opening of New York’s Sheepshead Bay Speedway on Oct. 9, 1915, he recorded fast time with a blistering 115.756-mph lap, but engine failure sidelined him in the race. Returning to the same 2-mile board oval Nov. 2, he handily won the 100-mile Harkness Gold Cup with a 105.395 mph average.

The following year, 1916, marked the first time in history an auto racing champion was crowned by accumulating points assigned by a sanctioning body, the American Automobile Association (AAA). The championship became a battle between Resta and American ace Johnny Aitken, who drove another Peugeot.

Resta easily won the 1916 race at Indianapolis, at 300 miles the only one ever scheduled for less than 500. He added wins on the board tracks of Chicago and Omaha while Aitken won at Cincinnati, twice at Sheepshead Bay and in a special “Harvest Classic” race at The Brickyard on Sept. 9, 1916.

The championship came down to the Vanderbilt Cup and the American Grand Prize road races. Resta’s second consecutive Vanderbilt Cup win sealed the deal when both he and Aitken experienced mechanical failure in the American Grand Prize. 

Unfortunately, Resta proved an unpopular champion with race fans. His introverted nature was interpreted as snobbery. Wife Mary continued to plead her case for Dario to retire from driving. By some accounts, he spent the 1917 season in a listless state and enjoyed little success. He raced sparingly in 1918. In 1919, he and Mary had a baby girl, Virginia, and he seemed to have finally retired to focus on business and family.

Still, his urge to race lingered. Resta returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1923 with a Packard prepared by De Palma. Despite qualifying on the front row, the machine was not up to the task and a head gasket let go. 

In 1924, Resta returned to Brooklands. Sunbeam called on him to test with an eye on the Indianapolis 500. On Sept. 3, 1924, he set out to establish the 2-liter engine class record for 50 kilometers.

Resta was flying at record pace in his first four laps, but on the fifth circuit a broken suspension bolt punctured his right rear tire. The car hit the retaining barrier at 122 mph, and Mary Resta’s worst fears were realized when her husband lost his life. Dario Resta, a champion in an era largely devoid of racing safety technology, could not rely on SAFER Barriers and crash-tested race cars, but his name is revered in the history of the Indianapolis 500.

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