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Wall Smacker - The saga of the speedway

Wall Smacker - The saga of the speedway

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Wall Smacker - The saga of the speedway

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335 pagine
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Nov 29, 2013


“ …The pages that follow are not offered as an attempt at literary style or excellence. I am far from being a writer, and, to tell the truth, “Wall Smacker” was the hardest task I’ve ever undertaken. It was my good fortune, however, to have had my career as an automobile racing driver during a glamorous and pioneering period of the sport era both in America and on the Continent that produced many immortals of the “Roaring Road,” and was packed with events and incidents of unusual interest to all followers of speed.
Many of my friends, realizing this, have urged me repeatedly to write my reminiscences in the form of an autobiography. Here, at last they are. I’ll feel fully repaid for my efforts if this book is entertaining, and happy, indeed, if it serves to keep alive at least a few of the episodes of a great chapter in the history of American automobile racing…”
Peter De Paolo - November 1st, 1935.
(Peter De Paolo was the American race car driver who won the 1925 Indianapolis 500)
Nov 29, 2013

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Wall Smacker - The saga of the speedway - Peter De Paolo


Chapter I


I HAVE often been asked, What led you to become an automobile race driver? It seemed to have been my natural heritage, for some of the most exciting events of my early, impressionable years were steeped in the glamour and excitement of automobile racing. I remember well, when I was twelve, a newspaper headline which read, Ralph De Palma Seriously Hurt in Big Auto Race. It had happened in Danbury, Connecticut, and my poor mother, Ralph’s sister, was terror-stricken and beside herself with grief. She immediately left our home in Roseland, New Jersey, to be at his side.

It was during my mother’s absence that I decided to become a race driver like my famous uncle. Of course, until then and for several years to come, all I knew about automobile racing was gleaned from conversations around the family table of Signor Tomasso De Paolo. There the discussion waxed high about the latest speed conquests of my uncle. Newspapers, pictures and . stories were read over and over again by us all, while mother beamed with sisterly pride. However, four long years were to pass before I was to see my first race with my famous uncle driving.

Uncle Ralph, who had always loved athletics, became a very successful bicycle racer, and this taste of speed created a desire for more. So in April, 1908, he made his first appearance as an automobile race driver in an Allen-Kingston car at the Briarcliff Road Race.

During this first year as a driver De Palma set an enviable record. In his second race in June of 1908 at Readville, Massachusetts, he defeated veterans like Harry Grant in an Alco, Stewart Elliott in an American and Barney Oldfield in a Stearns. In the twenty-mile-handicap-race Oldfield refused to start and left the grounds as he did on several occasions after that when De Palma was entered in the same event. This was the beginning of a bitter rivalry that lasted many years between these two drivers.

De Palma during his first year also drove an Italian-built Fiat Cyclone, and finished as one of America’s outstanding drivers. He broke records galore and had been a sensation as a beginner. By the end of 1909 De Palma had become the greatest racing driver in America. He made 47 starts, winning 34 firsts, eight seconds and one third against such stars as Walter Christie, Louis Strang, George Robertson and Caleb Bragg. He established eighteen World’s Records that year, and in eleven races he set nine new track records— truly a Knight of the Roaring Road.

In 1910 while still on crutches after his Danbury accident, he displayed rare courage and pluck in his driving at the Los Angeles Motordrome and won the admiration of all the fans there. During that season on various tracks he not only defeated the best of American drivers and cars but those of international fame as well. Among these were Kerscher in a Darracq, Ray Harroun in a Marmon, L. Nikrent in a Buick, Townsend in an Isotta, Oldfield in a Knox, David Bruce Brown in a Benz, and Lescault in a Simplex.

Ralph De Palma Leading the Field at Brighton Beach—1914.

Ralph and John De Palma, in German Mercedes Car.

Hard Luck Ralph Pushing His Car Over the Line in 1912 Indianapolis Race, Smiling.

Enrico Caruso Ready for a High Note with Ralph De Palma, at Savannah, Ga., 1910.

He again finished tops that year, and was personally congratulated at the Syracuse-New York Races by ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, who said that De Palma was the truest, cleanest sportsman he had ever had the pleasure to meet.

He continued to pile up victory after victory, let alone a tidy fortune with his winnings. He placed second in the 1911 Vanderbilt Cup Race at Savannah, winning this coveted trophy in 1912 and again in 1914. He also won the Elgin and the Chicago Automobile Cup at Elgin, and took the Jepson Cup at Santa Monica.

In the first 500-mile race at Indianapolis, held in 1911 and won by Ray Harroun in a Marmon Wasp, Uncle Ralph finished sixth, driving a Simplex on the new two-and-one-half mile brick speedway. Ending the 1911 season as runner-up to Ralph Mulford for the National Championship, he looked forward to the 1912 500-Mile Race and began to make careful preparations for this event. He now had one of the fastest racing cars in America, a German Mercedes, and groomed his foreign car carefully for this event in the hope that it would bring fame and fortune.

The Mercedes lived up to his fondest expectations. Pitted against the fastest cars of this country and Europe, Uncle Ralph led the race almost from the start. Best evidence of the car’s superior speed, plus masterful driving, was that upon entering the 197th lap, Uncle Ralph was approximately five laps (12¹/2 miles) ahead of the car running in second place. But in spite of this wonderful performance, victory was not to ride with De Palma that day. On entering the back-stretch either an oil line broke or the car had run out of oil, for the engine bearings went out and the car coasted to a stop, a quarter-of-a-mile from the finish line with only two laps to go!

With victory gone, Uncle Ralph amid the plaudits of the tens of thousands pushed his car over the finish line and into his pit. There was a smile on his face as he watched Joe Dawson come in winner, with much slower time in an Indianapolis-built National. Consoled by drivers, officials and newspapermen, who realized that victory and fortune (approximately $30,000) was within his grasp, Uncle Ralph smilingly congratulated Dawson and said, Oh, it’s all part of the game. Although he was from that day tagged as Hardluck Ralph, he became a legend of good sportsmanship, particularly when old timers get together and live over the races of bygone years on the speedway of memory. Ralph De Palma always the true sportsman!

Among the drivers of the 1912 Indianapolis Race was a young man whose name was to be heralded around the world within a few years. He had become quite famous as a dirt track driver and made his first start that day as a big league driver and failed to finish. But little did he, or the thousands who watched him, dream that in the World War he would be America’s greatest flying ace. That young fellow was Eddie Rickenbacker, whose exploits over the battlefields of France are recorded in history to inspire future generations. Today Eddie Rickenbacker is president of the Indianapolis Speedway, and also an executive of one of the country’s most successful air lines.

As the years slipped along and Uncle Ralph’s fame grew, he became the ideal of my aspirations. I dreamed of following in his footsteps and becoming a speed king. The stories of his successes fascinated me. As I grew older I imagined myself in the seat of one of those roaring monsters of steel, at the starting line or dashing around a turn to victory. This desire was intensified by occasional visits from Uncle Ralph and his three brothers, Frank, Tony and John. What a thrill the six children in the De Paolo family, as well as mother and father, had listening to first-hand accounts from Uncle Ralph and Uncle John about their various races! What questions we asked, particularly myself!

These visits were great occasions, for our uncles not only thrilled us with their stories, but they also brought us candy literally by the barrel. How honored we felt when we had to give up our beds to our four visitors! Of course, we were the envy of the other boys in the neighborhood because our Uncle Ralph was so famous. Nor had they uncles that brought them candy by the barrel!

In 1912 Uncle Ralph won six firsts and one second out of nine starts. He failed to finish at Indianapolis and, because of an accident, the Grand Prize Race at Milwaukee, but his victories brought him that year the title of American Champion for the first time.

Uncle John De Palma, who also was driving that year, took five seconds and three thirds out of eight starts, and finished ahead of Barney Oldfield in the National Championship standing. The supremacy of the De Palmas in the 1912 National Championship scramble brought joy to the houses of De Palma and De Paolo.

Fate was unkind to Uncle John. Serious trouble with his eyes forced him out of racing as he was approaching stardom. He had natural ability and many considered him the equal of his brother Ralph. However, he realized after several comeback attempts, at Indianapolis in a Delage and later at Beverly Hills in the Mercedes formerly owned by Ralph, that the Speedway was no place for a man with defective eyesight. Perhaps it was for the best. He is alive and in fine condition today, while many of the old timers with whom he competed—like Bob Burman, David Bruce Brown, Spencer Wishart, Harry Grant, Eddie O’Donnell, Gaston Chevrolet, Billy Carlson, Dario Resta, Roscoe Sarles — have crashed through a fence or smacked the wall to receive the final checkered flag in their dizzy chase for gold and glory.

Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, American Ace of Aces.

Eddie Rick, After a Victory on the Speedway, Pete Henderson.

Eddie Rickenbacker Playing Role of Wall Smacker, Red Oak, Iowa, 1909.

Chapter II


FOR years I had looked forward to the day when I could really see Uncle Ralph drive a race, but as almost all the racing events took place far from our home, I was long denied the privilege. In September, 1914, a two-day race meet was scheduled on the old Brighton Beach Course. This was not a long trip from our New Jersey home, and when I heard that Ralph De Palma was billed to race there I got permission from my folks to go and see it. The only proviso was that I had to pay my own way.

For some time I had been saving my pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters against just such an opportunity. To augment this meager sum I did all the neighborhood odd jobs I could find and finally accumulated $1.15, which would just about take care of carfare, ferry tickets and an admission ticket. I was so excited the night before the races that I barely slept a wink. My imagination was stirred to a high pitch and you can be sure that at the first crack of dawn I was out of bed eager to be on my way. It was to be a day full of adventure for me. With mother’s parting admonition to be careful, I started out. After much changing of cars and ferry boats, and considerable walking, which was done in record time, I reached the track.

By the time I had arrived several drivers were trying out their cars prior to the first race. Wade Morton was there in a Mercer, Dearborn in a Peugeot, Bergdoll in an Erwin . . . but Uncle Ralph was nowhere to be seen. As these sleek-looking cars tore around the mile track a strange aroma, one with which I was to become very familiar, filled the air. It was the odor of burned castor oil and rubber, and as I sat there spellbound watching the cars as they stopped at their pits for adjustments I was agog with excitement, imagining all kinds of things that might have happened or been done to my Uncle to prevent him from winning, having heard so much about the speedway which I didn’t understand.

While sitting there with my eyes glued to the track a roar of applause went up as Uncle Ralph in his four-cylinder Mercedes rolled up to the pits, identifying the car instantly by the large number 10 on the hood. That was enough for me! I was over the fence in a hurry, disregarding all who tried to stop me, and breathlessly I dashed up to Uncle Ralph. He greeted me with one of his big smiles, but wasn’t particularly impressed with my suggestions to be careful. As he was busy with his mechanics I reluctantly went back to my seat in the grandstand.

It was a great day for me, as Uncle Ralph won every race in which he was entered on the program—five in all. And were they thrilling to me! In one he barely beat Wade Morton by inches! I also witnessed my first racing crack-up. In the fifty-mile-free-for-all Frank Dearborn in a Peugeot was second and driving like fury to overtake De Palma when he blew a tire. Suddenly, like a thing gone mad, Dearborn’s car swung to the right barely missing Bergdoll's front wheels, and skidded crazily across the track. There was a cloud of dust, a crash, and the air was filled with splinters. Dearborn had gone through the fence near the grandstand. Frozen to my seat with excitement, I realized that someone must surely be hurt, and I was right. Dearborn died that night and McCarthy, his mechanic, suffered severe internal injuries. Of all the crashes I was to witness or be in, this one remains the most vivid in my memory, my having seen a race driver riding to death for the first time.

Chapter III


AFTER seeing my first automobile races at Brighton Beach I was more enthused than ever about becoming a race driver. Of course, too young at the time and realizing that I must get some experience, I proceeded to get myself a job and during the next six years had many different ones, always working, however, with the object of getting as much automobile experience as possible, particularly in the mechanical end.

One of my first positions was with a tire company in Newark, New Jersey. Fortunately my employer had an old 1909 Peerless which he finally allowed me to drive, and afterwards converted into a truck. This gave me my first experience with the mechanics of an automobile, having to keep the car in a running condition. One of the first things I did was to remove part of the muffler so the exhaust would roar out as on a racing car.

While working for this tire company it was necessary to go down to the freight yard for shipments of tires. One day with tire cases piled high on my converted touring car truck, I came back along the main thoroughfare of Newark, New Jersey. At one of the busiest corners, the traffic signal changed. Trying to stop, but to no avail—my car continued to slide forward! I was headed for a brand new jitney bus and a garbage wagon. My better judgment told me to favor (the bus and smack the wagon, if possible, and I did. In a fraction of a second all kinds of thoughts flew through my mind—Here goes my job, my license, possibly a fine. I shut my eyes and, bang, as I hit the wagon one of the large tire cases slid down over my head and crashed onto the street. There it burst wide open and tires were rolling in all directions. When the confusion had subsided a bit the colored fellow driving the garbage wagon rolled his eyes up at me and said, Dam! Dat’s what Ah say fo’ a dam’ kid drivin’! Fortunately the cop on the corner was a good friend of mine—I had been giving him advertising pencils for his kids at school. Just as the bus driver started to get nasty, my Irish friend roughly told him to get going, helped me gather up the tires, and gave me a big wink which meant to be on my way too.

When I returned to the store I found the bus driver in the office telling my boss that I had ruined his car. As I came through the door I heard my employer’s rich southern accent, Look heah, what yo’ all drivin’ at? Out with it, man! Ah’ve got business to attend to! What’s wrong?

Your driver hit my new bus down at Broad and Market, he wailed, waving one hand around, and he busted this thumb!

Busted yo’ thumb! Get yo’self out of this office befo’ Ah bust yo’ head. What yo’ tryin’ to do? Tell me, mah man! At this point I stepped into the office and explained what had happened. After listening to my story my employer said it was okay and told the fellow we would straighten up his fender. That was my first automobile crash.

During this period I also had some experience riding bicycle races. This was good training for me. With some boxing and wrestling thrown in, it taught me the spirit of competition and sportsmanship. Having never smoked or indulged in drinking, I was generally in the best of condition. This built up a good physical foundation that helped me later in life during the tougher grinds of automobile racing.

One evening upon my return home from work, I found a great deal of commotion over the news that Uncle John had had an accident while driving a practice spin at Indianapolis in a French Delage. During the next few days while we anxiously awaited reports, great news came to us. Not only was Uncle John not seriously injured, but Uncle Ralph had won the 500-Mile Indianapolis Race, setting a new record of 89 miles an hour—one that stood for seven years. There was great rejoicing in the house of De Paolo over this great victory.

This new triumph of Uncle Ralph’s convinced me more than ever that I should follow in his footsteps. To do so I realized I would have to get more driving and mechanical experience, so I decided to give up my job with the tire company and seek new fields.

Uncle Ralph had put a large part of his prize money into a garage known as The Apthorp in New York City, with Uncle John as manager. This proved a very profitable business and included the operation of a large number of expensive rent cars. Knowing this, I decided that if I could become familiar with New York City and get a state driver’s license, I would ask Uncle John for a job driving one of the rent cars. After studying the location of the leading hotels, theatres and prominent stores in the shopping district, I was able to pass an examination for a city taxi-driver’s license. Armed with these qualifications I left the tire company in Newark and approached Uncle John for a job. To him at first it was quite a joke. He kidded me about being such a little shrimp, and how impossible it would be for me to drive one of their big cars in New York City traffic. After considerable pleading for a trial, he finally assigned me to a big sedan.

It developed that I wasn’t much of a success as a public chauffeur and I soon had another position driving an Oldsmobile for a man who really had the speed complex. He was the kind that would urge you to pass everything on the road. Even on Fifth Avenue when a traffic signal changed, he wanted to be away with a racing start. For me this was just great; I pictured myself at the wheel of a racing car with the Starter sending us on our way.

I later had another job taking care of a number of cars for a family that also owned a fine boat. This work gave me valuable experience and an opportunity to become more familiar with the mechanics of an automobile and an internal-combustion engine. Although I made many mistakes servicing cars in those days, my love for the work always made me stick to it until each problem was licked. Above everything else I loved my work for I was happiest when tinkering around some important part of an engine in an effort to make it perform better.

About this time there was the scare of war in the air. When the United States finally entered on the side of the Allies, my life, like many others, was suddenly changed by the course of events.

Chapter IV


WITH the nation at war, most sports, including automobile racing, were discontinued. At the very start the boys of the Speedway were doing their bit and many gave a good account of themselves. Eddie Rickenbacker had gone over with General Pershing to drive his car. He soon was transferred to the air corps, where he covered himself with glory. George Hill, Art Klein, Pete Henderson, Guy Ball, Glover Ruckstall, Frank Elliott and Ed Waterman were also in the air corps, while Bill Weightman was in the motor transport corps. Harmon D. (Cap) Ryus was a Major in the First Division, and George Robertson, a former Vanderbilt Cup Winner, was serving as a Lieutenant-Colonel. Others were in the various branches of the service. Many, because of their mechanical knowledge, were on Liberty engine production at some of the prominent automobile factories. Uncle Ralph had an important post at the Chief Air Corps Experimental Station, Dayton, Ohio.

With the

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  • (5/5)
    A fascinating glimps into the world of racing in the 1920s. Pete raced both in America and Europe, and his story sheds light on an almost forgotten period of the sport.