A family that set American racing alight

Damon Hill's success has focussed attention on racing families, including this duo from the 1920s

Recently we have been reminded of motor racing's family connections. Damon Hill has followed effectively and with honour in extrovert father Graham's championship wheel tracks, and Jacques Villeneuve, both in America and Europe, has likewise emulated his father's great racing career. Jackie Stewart's son Paul is closely involved in motor racing, and Michael Schumacher's younger brother Ralf has joined the Jordan F1 team. At the Brooklands VSCC speed trials recently, Delaneys pere et fils were competing, and some time back I wrote of how four generations of the Cunliffe family engaged in the sport.

There is nothing new in this. One remembers the two Ascaris, father and son, Antonio and Alberto, and in the early days Albert Clement followed his father into the racing game. The ill-fated Biagio Nazzaro, killed when his Fiat's back axle broke in the 1922 French GP, was the nephew of the great Felice Nazzaro.

In America Peter de Paolo was the nephew of the great Ralph de Palma, and was to become a great himself, racing in Europe as well as in the States. De Palma, whose Italian parents had emigrated to America in 1893 with their son, began on the dirt tracks around New York in 1908. European manufacturers were not averse to having American drivers in their cars when racing in the USA if better known local men were there to lead them. Thus Ralph de Palma got a Fiat drive in the 1908 Savannah Grand Prix, which was won for them by the experienced Louis Wagner, the American boy a mere ninth. He was, however, allowed to continue in Fiats until 1911, when he drove a Simplex into sixth place in the first Indianapolis 500.

From that, de Palma graduated to Mercedes in 1912. At Indianapolis that year he had a terrible disappointment when his car threw a con-rod only two laps from the finish. However, victories in the Elgin road races and the important Vanderbilt Cup contest ensured his Mercedes drives, until he was involved in a serious accident in the American GP while challenging Bragg's big Fiat for a win. Recovered, de Palma was racing again by 1913, for Mercer, as head of that American team, and he won for them at Elgin. But, and history has often repeated itself, a row developed, when Mercer signed-up the wild Barney Oldfield as one of the drivers. De Palma left in angry mood. However, after repairing the old chain-drive GP Mercedes which had let him down in the last moments at Indy in 1912, he won the Vanderbilt Cup Race again, at Santa Monica, from the Mercer driven by Barney, which must have been a delight indeed.

With racing stopped by the war in Europe, de Palma turned again to Indy, and with one of the 1914 GP Mercedes (a spare car or one of the victorious race-cars?) won the 1915 Indy 500 at the record speed of 89.84mph. He used this Mercedes to win American road races, and competed also on dirt and board tracks, and with the 9.5-litre V12 Sunbeam won a short race in 1915 at Sheepshead Bay at 113.7mph. When hostilities finally involved America, de Palma worked at Packard's on the development of the V12 Liberty aero engine and the 14.8-litre Packard with which he was timed over a mile at 149.87mph at Daytona in 1919, a record not recognised in Europe. Ernest Ballot, the marine engineer who was expanding into car manufacture (that ship's anchor badge) signed up de Palma to drive his new 3-litre Ballot at Indianapolis in 1920, where he was placed fifth, after a last-minute disappointment, due to tyre problems, like those he had experienced there in 1916, again when in the lead. Thomas's Ballot finished second. But he won at Elgin with a Ballot in 1920.

Apart from these American successes, de Palma had come to Europe to drive in the 1921 French Grand Prix with another of the new Henry designed Ballot cars. His reputation for sportsmanship preceded him. Completely exhausted after pushing his stricken Mercedes several miles to the finish to take second place at Indy in 1912, he congratulated Dawson, whose winning National had passed him. And while being removed on a stretcher with near-fatal injuries after being flung from the Mercedes at Milwaukee, he had time to call: "Bragg wasn't to blame. He gave me all the road."

The American driver was not exactly a stranger to the top French race, having been commissioned in 1912 and 1914 to drive for Fiat in the Grand Prix. On the first occasion de Palma was disqualified for not refuelling as the race regulations required, but the giant car was good enough to give veteran Wagner second place behind Boillot's revolutionary twin-cam 7.2-litre Peugeot. De Palma drove a Vauxhall on the eve of war in 1914, but the gearbox packed up after seven of the 20 laps.

In 1921 the great French GP looked like being a fiasco. Up to entry-closing, only Ernest Ballot with his Ballots, the STD Talbot-Darracq team, and a non-competitive small Mathis had been filed. Ballot, with excellent engine-production facilities had secured the services of Ernest Henry of twin-cam Peugeot fame to design his racing cars for the new 3-litre formula. STD was enmeshed in Post-war and recent take-over distractions, and its straight-eight twin-cam Talbot and Darracq cars were still unfinished. To run the race with only four competitive cars, all of identical make, looked like disaster, although M Ballot had signed up top drivers in de Palma and the veterans Wagner and Chassagne, with Goux in a back-up 2-litre.

I am aware of the stories told by highly acclaimed motoring journalist WF Bradiey about this precarious happening. The Ballots were said to have been built in 90 days from first blueprint to completion and testing. (If I believe that I shall believe anything, I thought; but to be fair, Bradley was there and I was not.) He has recounted how the AC de France refused an entry to Duesenberg, who could have revived the race, until it paid double fees, its cable having been sent to Bradley who looked after such affairs for some of the teams, and how he only handed in the cheque as the Pans clocks were striking six, the final deadline... The race was now in better fettle; after the fine field of 37 for the dramatic 1914 event at Lyon, dominated by Mercedes, it would have been embarrassing to start it in 1921 at Le Mans with only five runners. (It was to happen that only three Bugattis came to the start of this classic, but that was five years hence...) Fortunately some STD cars at last arrived, with Segrave, Rene Thomas, Andre Ballot and Lee Guinness to pilot them. Zborowski had also been sent for.

Sammy Davis and Clive Gallop painted the Count's car blue in haste while he slept, Thomas looking on, making cryptic comments; he knew that the Talbot was devoid of brake-shoes and that there were no available spares! Of seven intended identical STD cars only four started, two as Talbots, two as Darracqs, the Sunbeams absent. Thus Resta lost his drive; maybe Zborowski, until he decided otherwise, and Dubonnet got their chance after a financial arrangement?

The Duesenbergs proved a surprise, with their single-cam straight-eight engines and hydraulic (using water) four-wheel brakes. They were entrusted to Joe Boyer, Jimmy Murphy, and the Frenchman Guyot, with a fourth car at the last moment for Dubonnet. The Duesenbergs had a fine Indy reputation. De Palma, says Bradley, proved a demanding driver who apparently asked for the Ballot's right-hand gearlever to be moved to a central position, so that his nephew and riding mechanic Peter de Paolo could, at a signal, look after his gear-shifts! (A year later Bordino had to allow his mechanic to change the gears on the Fiat he was driving, but this was because he had broken his left arm and the thing proved so exhausting that after securing fastest lap he gave up, letting team-mate Salamano win.) However, I would have thought that on the giant cars de Palma raced earlier, the right hand gearlevers would have defied intervention from any but him, and that on board tracks and at Indy almost all driving was in top gear. However, Bradley has it that on one corner where Ballot was watching practice there was a graunching missed change, and that the lever was then put back to where Ballot thought it belonged. After which, it is said, de Palma lost some of his interest in the race for which he had journeyed to Le Mans.

Thirteen cars faced the starter on that July morning in 1921. Duesenberg was said to have been annoyed at having to pay double fees to enter, which I would have thought was a drop in the ocean after the cost of transporting four cars across the pond and paying the drivers. The STD entry was almost up to strength. Bradley has it that Coatalen was away and that fisticuffs broke out between the head of the engine test department, Clement, and the man responsible for chassis assembly, Gaument, in the Suresnes Experimental Department, and that Owen Clegg, the Works Manager, was completely disinterested in the racing cars, expressing this in typical Yorkshire manner. So the work-force had lost interest until, most improbably it seemed, two young Englishmen who had no association with the racing department but who wanted Guinness and Segrave to start the GP, talked the irate Clegg round, took over, and told the workers to get cracking. All without union intervention? But at least the Ballots, which had had bad luck at Indy in 1921, would have some competition. Before the GP de Palma had run a Ballot at Indy; however, after leading for 112 laps, a con-rod broke and he retired.

It turned out a hard race, as the road broke up and stones were strewn about, one of which actually knocked Segrave's mechanic unconscious. Between them the STD team changed 30 wheels. Jimmy Murphy won for Duesenberg but with his radiator empty, holed by a stone, with de Palma second and Goux third for Ballot.

After this de Palma returned to the American track events but his luck continued to be out in the Indy 500, where he never repeated his 1915 victory, or was even placed, although leading many times between 1911 and 1925 and netting $31,400 in lap prizes. He drove Packard, Duesenberg and Miller cars on the post-war tracks until he took to establishing stock-car endurance records for Chrysler. He then became a consultant to Mobil. He died in 1956.

De Palma's nephew, Peter de Paolo, gained experience as his famous uncle's riding mechanic. He was astonished at how close the cars raced on the short board tracks, where he was to perform so well as a driver later on. Louis Chevrolet gave de Paolo his chance to race, but his first season was marred by many accidents as well as clutch and ignition troubles and broken back axle-shafts on the Frontenac, necessitating many visits to the works at Santa Rosa. He had also smacked the wall in the Indianapolis 500, with Riley Brett as his mechanic. So de Paolo gave up motor racing for the time being. He had married Sally Lewis in 1922 and been given a Chevrolet tourer by Louis Chevrolet as a wedding present, although the couple used a new Ford-T tourer for their honeymoon.

This took him to Paris, where he met Ernest Ballot and was offered a place in his team for the 1922 French GP. But the pull of a drive at Kansas City in one of the new L Wade-sponsored Junior Specials in the 300-mile grind proved too great. However, it was a disaster; a serious accident caused by another crash injured de Paolo, who was rescued by his mechanic, Harry Hemming. After this unhappy experience de Paolo ran a service station in California until Fred Duesenberg brought him back into racing in 1924, when he came sixth in the Indy 500. The following year he was American National Champion by reason of his successes on the boards and at Indy, where he was the first winner to average more than 100mph, in a Duesenberg. That year he travelled to Monza and drove an Alfa Romeo into fifth place. As a road car he had a new Buick tourer. By 1927 his performance in American races brought him his second National Championship, driving for Miller. Then, in 1928, a steering arm broke on his Perfect Circle Miller in practice at Indy, and he was again seriously injured, although he returned to drive in the 1929 Indy 500 in an fwd Boyle Valve Miller.

That seemed to him enough, and he took a position with Chrysler, as his uncle had done. However Harry Miller had him back racing by 1934, and he was sixth in the Tripoli GP before going on to Barcelona to drive a Maserati in the Penya Rhin GP. Here he suffered his third major accident, which marked the end of his racing career. He then took a post looking after tyre interests at the Ford Motor Company. This Christmas we are celebrating the World Championship of Damon Hill, and remembering the achievements of his famous father, Graham. In America in the 1920 they enthused over an uncle and his nephew Ralph and Pete. W B