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De Palma Set Standard for Sportsmanship after Heartbreaking Loss in 1912

“No race is won until the tape is crossed and I realized that all the time. It’s hard luck, but it’s all in the game. I did my best, and since I’ve lost out, I’m for the man who picked the prize.” – Ralph De Palma after the 1912 Indianapolis 500

Few scenes across the decades of the Indianapolis 500’s history would more greatly move those that witnessed it than what happened just 3 miles short of the finish at the 1912 race. After leading 196 laps and holding a five-lap lead with 10 miles to go, Ralph De Palma’s Mercedes began hammering itself to death with a broken piston rod.

Spewing oil onto the brickyard, the once invincible machine slowed as its doomed engine rattled and then stopped. But this Indy 500 truly revealed the character of a man than that brutal loss.

Stunned, De Palma and his Australian riding mechanic, Rupert Jeffkins, sat helplessly watching other racers speed by. Then, in an image that has inspired artists; the two men stepped from the stricken machine and began to push the 2,000-pound hulk toward the finish line.

The beginning of the end came entering the backstretch of his 197th lap when his car, a German Mercedes originally designed for the 1908 French Grand Prix, snapped a connecting rod. Pounding like a sledgehammer, the unbridled rod relentlessly beat its way through the engine block. One newspaper man wrote, “The car slowed down and chugged past the grandstand like a motor boat.”

De Palma knew his only prayer was to keep the stricken machine moving. He continued to circle the course to return to begin his 199th lap slower yet at barely 20 mph.

The crew of second-place Joe Dawson’s National, screaming and waving, urged their driver to lay it all on the line. Dawson, who had won the Speedway’s July 1910 200-mile Cobe Trophy, responded.

Dawson, 22, and his Indianapolis-built race car aroused the emotions of the 80,000 spectators. The predominately Hoosier crowd screamed for their native son – and car – to win the world’s richest race.

After Dawson took the checkered flag, the crowd turned to the two exhausted men laboring to push their disabled machine. In an image of indomitable human spirit, the tired, perspiring, defeated driver smiled, his teeth contrasting with the oily grime on his face. He waved to the crowd. A second heartfelt roar emanated from the gathering.

Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s top World War I fighter pilot and a driver in the race, said, “The cheers and applause were even louder for this man than the winner. Ralph De Palma had failed, but he had failed in a wonderful way.”

The cruelty of the misfortune was accentuated by the fact that De Palma had outclassed the field. In the entire history of the Indy 500 only one driver has led more laps in a single race. Billy Arnold led 198 laps in his 1930 winning effort.

De Palma, starting fourth, surged to the front after ceding the lead to “Terrible” Teddy Tetzlaff and his brilliant red Fiat for the first two laps. Driving what Rickenbacker described as a gray Mercedes that “gleamed like a Tiffany showcase,” De Palma scorched the bricks at unprecedented speeds. Lap after lap, he averaged well over 80 mph, easily distancing himself from Dawson, who ran second most of the way and averaged 78.72 mph after 500 miles.

Throughout the contest, De Palma and his crew demonstrated near perfect execution. In five errorless pit stops, he took on fuel and most importantly, precautionary tire changes. More careless competitors paid the price.

The worn rear tires on Bob Burman’s Cutting racer exploded in Turn 3 on his 158th lap. The racer skidded sideways and barrel-rolled, tossing Burman and his mechanic, Harry Goetz, onto the bricks. Neither was injured aside from the predictable bruises and lacerations.

Earlier, in Turn 1 of Lap 81 when another tire let go on Gil Anderson’s Stutz, both he and riding mechanic Billy Knipper were also thrown from their car. Miraculously, they also escaped serious injury.

By contrast, De Palma and his crew performed flawlessly. It was not enough. The brilliant driver was left to push his car. According to starter Fred Wagner, when De Palma finished pushing, he leaned against his gray racer, ran his fingers through his wet hair and asked for lemonade and a sandwich. De Palma, 29, then made his way to winner Dawson and shook his hand.

The incident marked De Palma as a gentleman, a reputation he held the rest of his life. It was also why one of his competitors, watching De Palma and his crew celebrate a victory three months later at the Elgin, Illinois, National Trophy Race, said, “De Palma is a popular winner because he is such a good loser.”

Ironically, it was another driver’s loss that launched De Palma’s career in big-time racing. As one of the riding mechanics for the Allen-Kingston company, De Palma rode with driver Arthur Campbell in practice for the 1908 Briarcliff, New York, road race. Campbell misjudged the width of a bridge, and the massive racer tumbled to land upside down in a stream.

Campbell’s injuries prevented him from racing, and De Palma got his chance. While the results fell short when a broken axle sidelined him, the team gave him other driving assignments throughout the year.

The April 24 running of Briarcliff launched a career for De Palma that spanned 25 years, ending in 1933. Born in Troia, Italy, on Dec. 19, 1882, De Palma came to New York with his family in 1893.

Like many of America’s first race drivers, De Palma raced bicycles on wooden velodromes in the 1890s. By 1904, he was racing motorcycles and became a chauffeur to the founder of the Vanderbilt Cup road race, William K. Vanderbilt Jr., which connected him to the sport’s leadership.

His connections and his skill served him when he joined the Italian Fiat team in late 1908. They toured the United States over the next two years, with De Palma winning numerous contests, mostly on 1-mile dirt tracks.

De Palma went to Simplex in 1911 and drove its 597 cubic-inch engine racer to a sixth-place finish in the first Indianapolis 500. By leading Laps 20 through 23, De Palma recorded the first of his career-total 612 laps leading the great race. He competed in only 10 Indy 500s and yet remained the all-time lap leader until surpassed by Al Unser in 1987. In his 10 starts, De Palma drove seven different makes of car, among them Ballot, Mercer, Duesenberg and Miller.

De Palma chose his cars well. The Ballot was fast, and he won his two pole positions at Indy and led a total of 187 laps in 1920 and 1921. He seemed a sure winner in 1921 before yet another connecting rod broke. The car proved more dependable in July at the 1921 French Grand Prix, where he finished second to Jimmy Murphy’s Duesenberg.

De Palma’s greatest triumphs came at the wheel of a Mercedes, like his victory in the 1915 Indianapolis 500. This time De Palma had a Mercedes from the 1914 French Grand Prix. Although De Palma led 132 laps, another Italian-born driver living in America, Dario Resta, battled fiercely for the lead.

When Resta’s Peugeot blew a right rear tire in Turn 4 on Lap 137 while leading, De Palma was able to put a lap on his rival.

De Palma was unchecked the last 65 laps until, with just three circuits remaining, he must have felt a nightmarish moment of déjà vu. A connecting rod snapped and punched a hole in his crankcase. This time the car hung on to stumble across the finish line a winner with a margin of over three minutes.

De Palma’s career began to wind down after his last Indy 500 in 1925. He had won the “500,” the Vanderbilt Cup twice and a handful of board track contests. Throughout his career, he particularly enjoyed dirt tracks. This is where he turned his attention in his final years as a race driver, campaigning a Miller racer and scoring minor victories until he retired at nearly age 50. His last appearance at Indy was in 1931 at age 47, but he failed to qualify.

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