The Danbury Evening News , Monday, October 11, 1909 boasted, “A total of 61,414 people attended the Danbury Fair last week, figures that have been exceeded but once since the Fair was established forty-one years ago.” Newspaper accounts also reveal that one of the biggest draws that year happened to be the highly anticipated automobile races with over 8,000 people watching on its closing day on October 9th. Automobiles were all the rage and it was estimated that the number of “machines” that entered the grounds during the week exceeded 1,500 and that they brought nearly 10,000 people to the Fair.
The driver with the biggest billing for Saturday’s races was Ralph DePalma. “Ralph DePalma and other famous drivers are to compete and expected to be an unusually big drawing card. “ Then too, there was the added fact that the races were given under sanction of the American Automobile Association.
“The fact that some of the fastest and most noted automobile drivers in the country were entered in the chassis races at the Danbury Fair on Saturday afternoon drew one of the largest weekend crowds the Fair has had. When the races opened at two o’clock, there wasn’t a vacant seat on the grand stand and people were standing along the fence in front of the stand. There was never a more perfect day for outdoor events, the weather being almost summer-like. The enthusiasm shown by the people, demonstrated beyond a doubt that an automobile race, especially the kind provided for Saturday, was a novelty that acted as a magnet to bring thousands to the Fair Grounds.”
The nine events scheduled to take place included a motorcycle race and a five mile exhibition race by DePalma “the “dare-devil pilot” in his Fiat Cyclone, “the most powerful car of its weight in the world.” DePalma was aiming to try for a new world’s record for speed.
Sadly, tragedy struck during the last lap.
On October 10th, the day after the wreck, a New York Times headline read, “Ralph De Palma Injured in Race.” Danbury, Conn., Oct. 9 – Following the bursting of a tire during a five mile race on the Danbury Fair track today, Ralph De Palma, one of the most daring drivers in the country, was thrown a distance of twenty feet, narrowly escaped hitting a tree in his flight, and landed on marshy ground, received a fractured thigh and possible internal but not fatal injuries. De Palma had been having trouble with his machine during most of the race, and on the last lap let his machine out until he was going at the rate of sixty miles an hour when a rear tire burst, causing the machine to turn to one side, crash through the enclosure around the track and turn turtle. De Palma was thrown through the air and landed on his side in a marsh. He was unconscious when picked up and taken to the Danbury Hospital. The machine was smashed to pieces, and was the one which Cederino was driving when he was killed during the Pimlico races in 1908. DePalma’s injuries will keep him out of the twenty-four-hours race at Brighton Beach next week and the Vanderbilt Cup race, for which he was entered.”
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram of October 10, 1909 reported, “De Palma Injured; May Be Crippled. Famous Racing Driver Thrown Through Fence at Danbury.”
Now, according to the local paper, “Mr. DePalma had made his turn just below the judges stand on the ninth lap and was just turning into the back stretch when one of the rear tires burst, causing his car to skid against the fence, the front wheels of the car shooting into the air sending the daring driver under the fence into the grass covered enclosure. The chassis turned two complete revolutions through the air and landed upside down on the track, badly broken. Mr. DePalma was found to have sustained a fracture of his left thigh and was removed to the Danbury Hospital in Alexander S. McLean’s touring car, where the injured man was attended by Dr. H.F. Brownlee and Dr. Nathaniel Selleck.”
After Fair Week was over, a full review of all fair-related news was shared with the public, including DePalma’s crash. The Danbury Evening News published on October 11, 1909 explained the day in this way: “Saturday’s automobile races were interesting – even exciting – and except for the unfortunate accident in which Ralph DePalma barely escaped death, were successful. The DePalma mishap in which one of the greatest drivers in the world, was hurt and a famous machine was damaged, furnished a spectacle for the hundreds of people in the grand stand that it falls to the lot of comparatively few to witness. The accident brought the races to a sudden termination, with unfinished events still on the program, but no word of protest was heard. The question upon everybody’s lips was about the extent of the injuries received by the daring driver of the famous Fiat Cyclone and the news that he would escape with his life was follows by expressions of thankfulness. The strain among the people upon the grand stand and in the automobiles in the parking space during the few moments immediately following the accident was intense and several women collapsed under it. The people realized that what had been their sport had suddenly become tragedy and they seemed awed by realization of the chances that the men riding about the track at express train speed had been taking.”
Racing fans everywhere should be grateful to Doctors Brownlee and Selleck. After all, look at a few of the things that this young, twenty-six-year-old, Italian immigrant went on to accomplish during his lifetime:
1911 – Winner of the first Milwaukee Mile Championship Car race
1912 – Earned the U.S. National Driving Championship
1912 – A legendary and memorable loss at the Indy 500
1914 – Captured the Vanderbilt Cup on the roads of Santa Monica, CA and wins his second U.S. National Driving Championship
1915 - Drove to victory at the 1915 Indianapolis 500
1919 – Drove a Packard to a world speed record of 149.875 mph
1921 – Traveled with other Americans to Le Mans to compete in the French Grand Prix. Finished second place.
1923 – Established the DePalma Manufacturing Company in Detroit to build race cars and engines for automobiles and aircraft
1929 – Winner of the Canadian National Championship
Ralph DePalma continued to compete in stock cars until he retired from racing in 1936. He died on March 31, 1956 at the age of 73.
DePalma , who won over 2,000 races in his 25-year career, earned many posthumous awards including inductions into the Automotive Hall of Fame, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.
And to think, one of his earliest races took place, right here…at The Danbury State Fair of 1909!