We The Italians | The Italian American stars in US sports: Car and Motorcycle Racing

The Italian American stars in US sports: Car and Motorcycle Racing

The Italian American stars in US sports: Car and Motorcycle Racing

  • WTI Magazine #98 Dec 17, 2017
  • 1360

The first half of the twentieth century

Raffaello "Ralph" DePalma (born in Italy in 1883 in Troia, Puglia) arrived in Brooklyn together with his parents in 1891. The very young Pugliese American began to work as apprentice in a food shop, delivering by bicycle home deliveries. Then the first money arrived, together with dreams and a used bike powered by motor, and then the first races and first victories. In 1904, the twenty-one year old Ralph attended the first edition of the Vanderbilt Cup, a car race organized in Long Island: returning home he decided that racing on wheels would be his future and, in 1908, he began the pilot who sometimes arrived before the others, with a bit of courage more than the others.

In 1912 he raced for the first time in Indianapolis, leading the race until four laps from the end, before being compelled to retire due to the failure of his car's engine. That year ended with a victory, a few good places and nine weeks' stay … in hospital. In 1914 DePalma won the Vanderbilt Cup and in 1915 he triumphed at the Indianapolis 500 Miles, before leaving for the Great War, destined for Army Air Service at the dawn of military aeronautics. After the war, in 1919 Ralph established a speed record in Daytona with 149.87 mph per hour. In 1925 he ran for the tenth time the 500 Miles, setting a record that will be beaten by Al Unser only in 1987! In 1929 he also won in Canada and, in 1936, he was still around in stock cars, speedways, oval tracks, dirt tracks and city circuits.

Joseph "Smokin' Joe" Petrali (1905, California) grew up in Sacramento, started racing on a used Indian motorcycle at the age of 14, and later wrote the sporting history of Harley Davidson, the factory that, today more than ever before, represents the special myth of the two-wheeler. During the Great Depression Harley's management, despite the fact that the production line was used for less than a third of the production capacity, decided to contract Petrali with a pay of $40 per week. He paid them back by winning Bethlehem's uphill races in 1931 and 1932 and the title of national champion on track at Syracuse in the same year.

Petrali was the first pilot to cure his image, no overalls dirty with grease but shiny leather trousers, leather helmet and jacket with the colors of the house. He used to say:"I cleaned up the image of the pilots of my childhood", as Charles "Fearless" Balke (a champion of the 10's), dirty right above the hair and crazy inside the dust of the dirt surfaces. On March 13th, 1937, on the Daytona Beach esplanade, he set a new world speed record for two-wheeled bikes at 136.18 miles per hour: the limit will only be exceeded 11 years later, after the Second World War, with the advent of a new generation of motorcycles.

These speeds, could make us smile, when compared to GP bikes and current speeds: but if we think for a moment about the engines, the track bottoms, the type of wheels and tyres at that time, we could be surprised. After the first official victory (in 1925), Petrali won 8 national championships of uphill racing (the first in 1929). From 1932 to 1936 he became national AMA champion in class A (in 1935 he won all 13 races of the championship!) for 5 times in a row.

At the end of his career he remained at Harley Davidson in the dual role of technical assistant and commercial testimonial, collaborating with the billionaire Howard Hughes and, for hobby, with the United States Auto Club and with the organization of the Indianapolis 500 Miles. This strong and brave pilot lived an extraordinary era when motor-driven machines replaced the horse, widening horizons and reducing fatigue. A true pioneer, worthily remembered in the Motosport International Hall of Fame, in the rallies and the golden roll of one of the most famous brands in the world. 

Ben Campanale, born in Worcester, MA in 1914, became a national name in AMA Class C racing, winning the Daytona 200 in 1938 and 1939. As a boy, he had built a motor iceboat by retrieving an old Harley from a peasant and a propeller from a nearby airport, with which he used to run around on frozen lakes. "The first time I put it on the ice went very well until I reached a certain speed" recalled Campanale. "The propeller was not inclined and the boat was trying to lift itself from the ice." 

Then he rearranged the old Harley's chassis and started racing in the middle of the fields: in 1934 he competed in his first national championship in New Hampshire reaching the 5th place and surprising everyone for his rudimentary motorcycle. He continued to compete and win all over New England and in 1938 he arrived for the first time at Daytona Beach to run the 200 Miles. The race turned into a tough battle against Lester Hillbish and Tommy Hays, marked by a few misconducts, before his victory. The following year in Daytona Campanale won again, driving an official Harley Davidson, offered him personally by William Harley. 

Between one race and the other, he made money appearing in shows with acrobatic motorbikes. In 1941 Campanale survived a serious and spectacular accident in a race in Oakland, which involved 5 pilots causing the death of 2 of them. Because of his injuries he spent a few months in the hospital, and was not enrolled during the Second World War. After the war he returned to the races organized by WADA along the Pacific coast, winning some of them. He later started a Harley Davidson dealership in Pomona, California: one of his regular customers was the actor Clark Gable. Every June 9th in Laconia, NH, the Ben Campanale Day is celebrated. Ben was nominated in the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

Luigi Chinetti (born in Italy in Jerago con Orago, province of Varese, Lombardia, in 1901) began working as a mechanic for the Alfa Romeo racing team in 1917. After being Alberto Ascari's mechanic and collaborating with Enzo Ferrari, in the second half of the twenties he emigrated to France, dealing with the sales of Alfa's racing cars and starting his career as a driver. He won his first 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1932, together with co-pilot Raymond Sommer, driving an Alfa Romeo 8C. The following year he triumphed at the 24 Hours of Spa (in Belgium) together with Louis Chiron and in 1934, still driving an Alfa, he won his second 24 Hours of Le Mans. At the outbreak of the Second World War he emigrated to the United States and, during the conflict, he worked for the car importer Alfred Momo, obtaining the American citizenship in 1946.

After the war, Chinetti returned to Le Mans in 1949 to race the 24 Hours with a Ferrari 166 MM and was the first driver to win the famous French race for 3 times. In the same year he won again the 24 Hours of Spa. In 1951, together with Piero Taruffi, Chinetti also won the Carrera Panamerican driving a Ferrari 212 Vignale. In 1953 Chinetti retired from racing and became Ferrari's official importer in North America and established his seat in Greenwich, CT: later he will retain the exclusive for Ferrari for all the States east of Mississippi. In 1958 he founded the NART (North American Racing Team) that ran the endurance races with the cars of the rampant horse and that, in 1965, won with Rindt and Gregory the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Chinetti always lived in Greenwich, where he died in 1994.

The second half of the twentieth century

Mario Andretti (born in 1940 in Montona, Istria, then Italian territory), together with his parents Alvise and Rina and his brother Aldo abandoned Istria (assigned to Yugoslavia by the Treaty of Paris) in 1948. The Andretti family first went to a refugee camp in Lucca (where Mario worked as a mechanical helper in a workshop) and then emigrated to the United States in 1955, settling in Nazareth, PA. First the mother, and then Mario himself in a book of memories, will tell about his passion for wooden cars and racing cars. Mario and his twin Aldo began working out and racing with a GT in 1958; before the end of the season Aldo was involved in a serious accident, which drove him away from the competitions. Mario passed to the unpaved ovals and then, in 1963, to the USAC races, that organized the single-seater races in North America. Andretti scored his first victory in 1965, also winning the national title, and won again in the following year.

In the meantime, he also raced in other categories with the sport cars of CanAm and of the  International Championship for Makes, scoring 3 victories at the 12 Hours of Sebring (in 1966, 1969 and 1970). In 1967 he also took part in the races of the NASCAR championship, winning the 500 Miles of Daytona. In 1968 Mario made his debut in Formula 1 driving a Lotus, obtaining a pole position at the United States Grand Prix; in 1969 he drove another 3 Grand Prix races with Lotus and won the USAC championship, also scoring a victory at the Indianapolis 500 Miles. In 1970 he was hired by March with which he raced 5 Grand Prix, winning for the first time a Formula 1 podium (third in Spain). In 1971 Mario was hired by Ferrari and won the opening Grand Prix in South Africa, also marking the fastest lap; the following year he stayed with the Maranello team, racing again in Formula 1 and with the sports cars (with which he won 4 races).

After a season of racing in the USA, in the seasons 1974 and 1975 he returned to Formula 1 with the American Parnelli team, winning points in Sweden (fourth), France (fifth) and scoring the best lap time in France. In 1976, still in Formula 1, he ran some races with Parnelli and others with Lotus: with the English team he won 2 pole positions and the last Grand Prix of the season in Japan. The following year, driving a Lotus, the first of the circus that exploited the ground effect, Andretti won 4 victories and 7 pole positions, ranking third in the championship. In 1978 he became World Champion with 6 Grand Prixes won and 8 pole positions, driving a formidable Lotus. The next two seasons with the British team were disappointing and, in 1981, Mario passed to Alfa Romeo, winning a fourth place in the first race.

In 1982 he ended his experience in Formula 1 racing a grand prix with Williams and the last 2 of the season with Ferrari, with a pole position and a third place, contributing to the victory of constructors' title of the Italian team. Andretti continued to run for many other years with the USA single-seaters (from 1983 to 1994 racing for the Paul Newman team), winning the CART championship in 1984. At the end of the 1994 season he announced his retirement from single-seater races, confirming that he would continue to run only in the the 24 Hours of Le Mans: in fact he participated in another 4 editions of the race, the last in 2000. Mario Andretti, present in the Automotive Hall of Fame, was the founder of a dynasty of pilots: his son Michael was a CART champion; the other son Jeff, his nephew John (son of his brother Aldo) and Marco, Michael's son, were (or still are) professional pilots.

Floyd "Chip" Ganassi Jr. (born in Pittsburgh, PA in 1958) was a pilot and still is the owner of a successful racing team, active in Indy Cars, NASCAR, World Endurance Championship and other series. As a pilot, he won his first Formula Ford race at the age of 18. He took part in the CART championship (in 1983 he was voted the best driver) in 5 editions of the famous Indianapolis race.

In 1966 a serious accident during a race in Michigan will interrupt his racing career. Two years later he will acquire a participation in a racing team that in two years, with Emerson Fittipaldi as driver, will win Indianapolis and the CART title. In 1990 he founded the Chip Ganassi Racing in CART formula by hiring the pilot Eddie Cheever; he won the first race in 1994 with the pilot Michael Andretti.

In 1996 he hired 2 new drivers for the CART championship: the first, Jimmy Vasser, immediately won the title; the second, the Italian Alex Zanardi, won 2 consecutive titles in the two-year period 1997-1998. In 1999 another title will arrive with Montoya, and the year after another won in Indianapolis. In 2001 Ganassi launched a team in the NASCAR championship. Then again arrived other prestigious victories (in 2003 the CART title, in 2006 the first of 6 victories at Daytona in NASCAR, in 2010 Daytona 500 and Indianapolis and the 12 Hours of Sebring) and other quality pilots (Pruett, Dixon, Franchitti, Rojas). Chip Ganassi has also been one of the owners of the baseball team Pittsburgh Pirates.

Michael Andretti (born in Bethlehem, PA in 1962), Mario's son, began racing in Formula Ford in 1980; later he moved to Super Vee and then to Formula Atlantic, winning the first races in 1982. Two years later he was hired to race in the CART championship and was voted the best rookie driver; in the meantime he finished third at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

In 1986 he won the first race of the CART formula and the following year he finished second in the championship. In 1991 he won the title, with 9 victories out of 18 races; in 1992 he finished second. In the same year he did a few tests in Formula 1 with a McLaren; in 1993 he made his debut with McLaren in the World Championship as second driver behind Senna, competing for 13 GPs and achieving his best place with a third place in Monza. Michael returned to CART in 1994 and recorded a long series of good races and a second place in the 1996 championship.

In closing, a note for Santino Ferrucci (born in Connecticut in 1996), who made his debut in karting races, starting to win in 2009: in 2012 he moved on to Formula 3 and then to Formula Toyota, with some winnings. Since 2016 he has been racing in the GP3 Series, Formula 2 and is hired as a test driver by Haas in Formula 1.