Born in 1882 in Biccari, Italy, Ralph DePalma immigrated with his family as a youngster to the United States and settled in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the 1890s.
Most historians focus on DePalma’s four-wheeled racing career, which was undeniably outstanding with an incredible 2,557 wins in 2,889 races in America and Europe. He is perhaps best remembered for his 1912 race driving a Mercedes when his engine failed after leading 196 laps. With two laps to go, DePalma and his mechanic (in those days, the mechanic rode alongside the driver during the race) pushed the car across the finish line to come in 11th place. He retired from racing in 1934.
DePalma’s first venture into wheeled competition came through bicycles in 1898. However, it has been stated that he lacked the stamina to progress in the sport. His sponsor was Fred Baker, who operated a Pierce bicycle dealership in New York City and Brooklyn. Fate stepped in when Baker obtained a dealership for the new Indian Motocycle Company in 1902, Indian’s first real production year.
In 1902, Indian only produced 143 motorcycles. The New York City store was undoubtedly the most important point-of-sale for the fledgling company, and Baker provided an Indian for DePalma to make appearances at local bicycle board tracks and other racing venues. The machine DePalma first rode in demonstration had serial number 7.
Unknowingly, DePalma became Indian’s very first competition rider, taking notable wins at these early races and reliability runs along the eastern seaboard. The accounts demonstrated to the public Indian’s power and durability over its competitors in this new industry.
Just as DePalma’s bicycle career eased him into motorcycle competition, so did his career ease him from motorcycles to automobile racing. Following his stint on the Indian, he rode a second-hand Curtiss in local competition, and a Merkel twin as late as 1910. He had his first taste of auto racing in 1908, when he was offered an opportunity to race an Allen-Kingston while working as a mechanic. He quickly began to win races and the career for which he was most noted skyrocketed.
DePalma died in Pasadena, Calif., in 1956 and was interred in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City., Calif. He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.