1921 French Grand Prix – When America Won The Grand Prix
By Peter de Paolo
After the Pay-off Banquet at Indianapolis where the prize money and the various trophies were awarded with the usual ceremony, we packed up, and the next day left for France, where Uncle Ralph de Palma was scheduled to drive in the French Grand Prix, a road race that was being run that year at the Le Mans course.
However, brother Johnny and I did not cross the Atlantic with Uncle. He went over on the Paris and we on a glorified tub called the Roussillon, so that ‘we could watch the Ballot’.
On arrival in Paris, Uncle gave Jean Marcenac instructions to arrange hotel accommodation for the three of us, that is, Brother Johnny, Jean and myself. In order to prove to Uncle that he could co-operate in keeping our expenses down, Jean arranged for us to stay at the Hotel Unic, located directly opposite the Gare Montparnasse, while Uncle stayed at the Crillon. A few days later M. Ballot, who was financing our invasion, happened to ask where we were stopping and when I told him the Hotel Unic he went wild in typical French style.
‘Mon Dieu! That is terrible Such a dirty, filthy place! Mon Dieu!”
After he had cooled down he gave us instructions to go to the best hotel and get the finest accommodation where we would not reflect discredit on him and the Ballot organization, which was conceded to be the best in France. As M. Ballot was paying our expenses it meant nothing to Uncle if we stayed at an expensive hotel but it conflicted with his ideas of discipline to have his mechanics stay at a place that offered too much luxury, as we had to keep our place in strict accord with the De Palma training code.
In Europe there is a wide gap between a mechanic and a driver. This fact I learned in later years when I registered at a European hotel and signed for my mechanic, Ernie Olsen, who was accompanying me. The manager informed me at once that no mechanics were allowed in the hotel!
After more than two weeks of hard work on the Ballot cars in Paris we were ready and the team moved into the little village of Ecommoy where we made our headquarters, about six miles off the racecourse. We lived in this little town for almost a month, working out on the course and tuning up the cars in an old barn, which we had changed over into a makeshift garage.
Louis Wagner had replaced René Thomas in the Ballot team after the Indianapolis race, but Chassagne and Goux were still with us. For a relief driver we had a big Italian named Foresti. We had an old Ballot racing car, which was used as a training car. We called it ‘The Mule’. All the drivers took their turn driving it in practice on the course between five and six in the morning. During that one-hour period the race course was closed to public traffic and the Grand Prix entrants could be reasonably sure that the right of way would not be challenged by bands of sheep, parades of strutting geese, loads of hay, and high-wheeled carts piled with produce.
One morning, just before taking off in practice, Cnassagne’s and Uncle’s crews stood beside the track at Mulsanne Corner in consultation with Ballot when we heard a car thundering along the tree-fringed stretch, coming towards us, just behind a little hump in the road.
“Who’s that?” I wondered, along with the others. Everyone seemed tense. Then I thought “Maybe it’s Jimmy Murphy or one of the other Duesenberg drivers, Joe Boyer, André Dubonnet or Albert Guyot?”
Imagine our surprise when the car topped the grade and we saw It was “The Mule”, our good friend Foresti at the wheel. On he came-120 miles an hour! We suddenly realized it would be impossible for him to make the turn and we all moved back, giving him ample room so that the road was clear in the event he decided to go straight on, which would take him back to Ecommoy, where breakfast was waiting for us. He never took his foot off the throttle. Instead he continued, faster and faster.
“He’ll never make it!” Uncle announced. “He’s crazy,” yelled Ballot, shaking his fist in the air.
We held our breath waiting for the crash. But Foresti fooled us. He did not attempt to take the corner; he kept straight on for Ecommoy, going down the slope wide open, the old Ballot engine barking at its best. Ballot jumped up and down, and cursed the big Italian with much disgust.
Although they had switched engines on Uncle at the Ballot factory, giving him the slowest of the four, during practice he consistently lapped faster than the other drivers. Quite naturally, this worried the Frenchmen. Ballot was not at all pleased. With much excitement he asked: “How does De Palma do it?” “I wish I knew,” confessed Chassagne.
However, the answer was simple. Uncle could outdrive them, but the real trick was in the way we shifted gears on turns. During the time we rebuilt the Ballot in New York we had moved the gearshift lever to the centre, whereas before it had been on the right-hand side. Because it was a right-hand drive, it was now possible for me to shift gears whenever Uncle signaled me. As a result he never had to take his hands from the wheel as we approached a curve. He would yell, “Second!” or “First!” whichever gear he wanted in accordance with the speed we were making. This saved a few seconds on every turn and accounted for the faster time we were making around the course.
Ballot was much concerned and, the morning before the race, discovered our secret. During a final rehearsal with the car tuned perfectly and our morale high, M. Ballot hid behind a bush on one of the turns. As we entered the curve and Uncle Ralph gave the signal I reached for the gearshift but I was too anxious. Instead of shifting into second gear I started to put it in reverse. There was a loud grinding of gears. Up jumped Ballot, howling like an Indian. Waving his arms wildly he charged out onto the course.
“Stop. Stop!” he yelled. Ballot ran up to us in record time.
“Eet is not permitted for ze mechanician to touch ze change-speed lever!”, he yelled. “De Palma, ze driver, must make ze shift!”
You can imagine our disappointment when he insisted that the gear-shift lever be changed back to the outside of the body, similar to the other cars, so that Uncle would not have any advantage over the native drivers, and proved very conclusively to me that he wanted a French driver to win. What a tough break that was I And was Uncle upset! We were all ready for the race and Ballot was going to make us change the gearshift mechanism back to the outside. Besides, all our practice was wasted time if Uncle had to do the shifting. That wasn’t all. We would have to work all night if we were to get the job finished in time for the race-just a little more than twenty-four hours away.
However, Ballot was the boss and we obeyed his orders, crazy, as they seemed. All night long, until a short time before dawn we worked hard. Finally, when Uncle was sure the entire assembly could be finished in a short time, he and I climbed up into the loft of the barn to get a little sleep.
With the car completed to the satisfaction of M. Ballot, we started preparations for our departure from Ecommoy to Le Mans and the starting point of the race. As we lined up in a downpour of rain for a photo, I noticed such drivers as Major H. O. D. Segrave, K. Lee Guinness and all the rest. It was obvious we were pitted against the foremost European cars and drivers.
It was also obvious that Ballot did not want us to beat the French drivers and his attitude ruined Uncle’s morale. From the very first lap I knew he was merely going through the motions of driving and was not his old self. ‘What’s wrong?’ I yelled in his ear, as we passed the pits, where he would let up on his throttle on every lap.
“Carburation!” he shouted back, as we coasted down the stretch in front of the stands.
I knew he was sore at Ballot and was trying to get the Frenchman’s goat by shutting off in front of the pits where Ballot was standing. I also felt that the first opportunity that presented itself he would drop out of the race and let the three others of the team fight it out for the glory of old Ballot, and that was just what I did not want him to do.
I knew he could beat the French drivers, even if he did have a slower car and I wanted him to trim the other members of the Ballot team, even if he didn’t win the race.
On his first lap, Wagner burned out his clutch. Standing alongside his car, as we passed him lap after lap, he raised a bottle of champagne in his hand with the motion of drinking to our health. As the result of Wagner’s being out of the race this left only two other members of the team for Uncle to beat – Chassagne and Goux, to wipe out Ballot’s poor sportsmanship and I almost prayed that he would snap out of it and start driving like his old self before it was too late.
Strangely enough, Wagner wanted Uncle to beat the other Frenchmen; especially he wanted to see him defeat Chassagne. For some reason or other, there was no love lost between these two French drivers. Suddenly, I noticed a leak in our fuel tank that was directly under our seats. As we hit a bump, the rear end smacked down on the axle and opened a seam in the tank. I first had trouble keeping up the air pressure in the tank. Then felt petrol on the seat of my pants. It had penetrated through and started burning my skin, a very uncomfortable feeling, but I didn’t say a word about it to Uncle for fear he would stop at the pits and call it a day.
Finally, we had to stop at the pits. Dirt had clogged up the throttle of our carburetors. While in the pit I was afraid that Uncle would discover the leak of petrol and call it quits, therefore I was very careful not to turn my back and give him a chance to see my petrol-soaked clothes. I tried to keep him from noticing the wet seat and the spot on the ground where the fuel leaked. A good deal of my body was blistered under my clothes and I must have appeared a bit nervous because I couldn’t stand still. However, I kept Uncle ignorant of the leak until a few moments before we were ready to pull back on the course, then he discovered the wet spot under the car.
“What’s that?” he demanded.
“What?” I said, very innocent-like.
“That!” he challenged, pointing to the wet spot on the ground.
“Oh, that’s just water and oil,” I said.
Uncle looked at the wet seat of my pants very suspiciously then examined the spot on the ground. “That’s not water that’s petrol. We’re all through! There’s a leak in the tank.”
I insisted it was water and a little oil that had washed off the under-pan. Then Brother Johnny came to the rescue, and it was he who really persuaded Uncle to get back in the race.
“We came over here to win an automobile race, but it appears as though we’re just playing around!”, he yelled. “What are you shutting off for when you go by here? All the other drivers go by here with wide-open throttles! Come on, let’s dump in an extra twenty gallons of fuel and let it leak. Pete, you keep up the pressure if you have to pump your arm off. Come on, Uncle, show them you can drive! Run these fellows off their tyres! Step on it and quit shutting off!” With this encouragement and pep talk, we jumped back into the car and from then on Uncle really drove. He made the other drivers look like amateurs on the course, all but one-Jimmy Murphy of the good old U.S.A. driving a Duesenberg.
Jimmy Murphy drove one of the greatest races of his career that day. The little Irish-American’s victory was the first American triumph in the French Grand Prix, and it was really remarkable because of his physical condition. He was in the hospital until two hours before the race. Many believed he would never be able to finish the 322-mille grind.
One week before, during practice, he had turned over, landing in a ditch with the car on top of him. He had taken Louis Inghibert, a Frenchman who was scheduled to drive one of the four Duesenberg entries, for a few laps of the 10.7-mille course. The brakes locked and the car did a few somersaults. Both men were taken to hospital, Inghibert with four broken ribs and Jimmy suffering from internal injuries.
Three days before the race it was necessary for me to go up to Paris by train and get some spare parts for the Ballot. As I had to go into Le Mans to take the train I went over to the Duesenberg headquarters, intending to pay a visit to Murphy and Joe Boyer. ‘Pedro’ Alf Neilson, a veteran mechanic who was riding with Joe Boyer and whom I knew well, tried to keep me out but I gave him a friendly nudge and said “Be yourself!” and walked into the Duesenberg headquarters. But no Jimmy Murphy. He was in hospital, and I knew from the way the boys talked, that they did not expect Jimmy to drive in the race.
When the accident eliminated Inghibert, the Duesenberg he was scheduled to drive was turned over to André Dubonnet, a young French millionaire amateur driver, son of the maker of the famous Dubonnet vermouth.
In spite of this accident, the miracle man of that race was Jimmy Murphy, who, although in no condition to drive, got up from his hospital bed, bandaged from waist to shoulders and had to be assisted into his car at the start. He gave the Old World one of its greatest driving lessons that day, winning the great classic at an average of 78.1 m.p.h., shattering all European long-distance road racing records. When he crossed the finishing line he had two flat tyres and a flying stone had torn a gaping hole in his radiator, but Jimmy gave the Frenchmen and all the rest of the contenders such a beating that there could be no question as to his superior ability as a driver.
The Duesenberg pilots and Uncle had not carried spare wheels, which is the custom in road racing in Europe. The American drivers figured it was quicker to drive to the pit on the rim, even if the flat occurred just after passing the pits than to make a change by the roadside and then stop at the pits for another spare. Murphy stopped once, changed both rear wheels and filled up with fuel and oil at the same time, never stopping again throughout the entire race.
We finished in second place, fifteen minutes after Jimmy Murphy, while our teammate, Jules Goux, finished third. André Dubonnet proved to be quite a driver in his first international speed contest by finishing fourth. Albert Guyot, another famous French driver, finished sixth in a Duesenberg. Joe Boyer, in another Duesenberg, put up a great race but failed to finish.
Along a section of the course on one of the most dangerous curves, there was quite a forest of trees just off the road. As we went through this turn just after passing Boyer on the eighteenth lap and losing him behind us, Uncle nodded towards the forest and shouted in my ear: “There’s where Joe’ll finish!” And sure enough, as we came round two laps later, there he was out among the trees. Luckily, neither he nor his mechanic, ‘Pedro’ Neilson, suffered any injury, although they were badly shaken up.
That Le Mans race taught us two things: that Jimmy Murphy was capable of holding his own with the world’s greatest road racing drivers as well as the outstanding stars of speedway, and that the French do not take an American victory with a smille, for when the little Irishman crossed the finish line, he was greeted with a series of ‘boos’, which seemed a bit un-sportsman like. This was further proven when at the banquet held in honour of the drivers Jimmy was further humiliated.
The first toast they drank was not to the victor, but to the Frenchman who had won third place, Jules Goux. That was more than Jimmy and his manager, the famous old-time racing champion George Robertson, could stand, and the American winner of the French Grand Prix who should have been the guest of honour, put down his glass and walked out, and entering a side-street café, said to the waiter, “Bring us some ham and eggs!”
The French Ballot team was stunned by this humbling defeat, so much so that its owner, Ernest Ballot, took to ranting and raving. Claiming that the Duesenbergs were junk he avowed that if the race had continued it would be the French Bollots who would have taken the victory. It took fellow Frenchman Albert Guyot to silence Ballot with the remark,
“There’s only one winner in any race: the man who gets home first.”