The drivers of a Mercedes racing car at the Indy 500.

Flying lap for a Mercedes legend at the Indy 500.

Lap of honour to celebrate a Mercedes winning the Indy 500 a century ago.

Text: René Olma
Photos: Royce Rumsey
  • Flying lap for a Mercedes legend at the Indy 500.

  • Showdown in front of 200,000 fans.

    Today a dream comes true for George Wingard. He will soon be firing up his 1914 Mercedes Grand Prix car for a lap around the oval at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway. All in front of 200,000 excited motorsport fans. It’s race weekend in the North American city that immodestly calls itself the “Racing Capital of the World”. The Indy 500 will soon be under way. A historic Mercedes on the oldest and surely most famous race track in the United States? It’s only irritating for a very brief moment.

    The engine of a Mercedes Grand-Prix car.

    Some 100 years ago, on 31 May 1915, Ralph DePalma drove a Mercedes Grand Prix racing car to victory at the fifth “International 500-Mile Sweepstake Race” in Indianapolis. A good enough reason for the racing machine from Untertürkheim to perform a lap of honour during the build-up to the 2015 edition of the Indy 500.

    “I’m a bad spectator.”

    An appearance made even more special by the fact that owner George Wingard is driving the racing car himself, whereas every other historic racing car in the build-up programme will be driven by legends like Mario Andretti and Al Unser. Wingard is the only driver in this illustrious field without an Indy 500 victory to his name.

    George Wingard at the wheel of his race car.

    And that’s not all as it’s also the first time he has attended the legendary race: “It didn’t take me long to realise that I’m a bad spectator. I prefer driving.”

    With 100 hp on tour: the white Mercedes.

    The white Mercedes.

    The 4.5-litre four-cylinder model is up and running after some quick preparation and a twist of the hand crank. First gear can clearly be heard engaging before the white Mercedes rolls out onto the track. Developed on the basis of aero-engine technology, the four-cylinder unit produces some 100 hp. This four-cylinder engine is testament to the great skills of the Daimler engineers some 100 years ago. Each of the individual cylinders made of turned steel has its own welded cooling-water jacket, while an overhead camshaft controls four valves per combustion chamber. The mixture is ignited by three spark plugs per combustion chamber. The engineers compensated for what was then a relatively small displacement with higher engine speeds: the crankshaft rotated at 3,000 to 3,500 rpm – an extremely high speed at that time. By way of comparison, its predecessor rarely got above 2,000 rpm.

    Treble in France.

    Configured to meet the regulations for the 1914 French Grand Prix in Lyon, the racing car showed its class by completing the treble. One of many impressed by this was Italian-born racing driver Ralph DePalma (1882 to 1956). After the race, the Italian-American bought the car that Louis Wagner had driven to second place before having it shipped to the US just in time before the breakout of World War One. This racing car was to finally make his big dream come true.

    Impressed visitors: the drivers push their white Mercedes at the race track.

    He had already been well on the way to victory in a Mercedes in 1912. Leading the way with just three laps to go, an engine failure put an end to his race on the penultimate lap. To the rapturous applause of some 80,000 spectators, he and co-driver Rupert Jeffkins pushed his Mercedes the remaining three miles to the chequered flag to finish in eleventh position.

    The racing car from Stuttgart enjoys a revival on the track.

    Victory after 200 laps.

    Three years later, in May 1915, DePalma makes up for the triumph with Louis Fontaine as his co-driver. He won the race after five hours, 33 minutes and 55 seconds at an average speed of 144.58 km/h (89.94 mph).

    DePalma and Fontaine retained the lead from the 135th lap right up until the end of the race after the 200th lap. The racing car from Stuttgart had therefore displayed its strength a second time already.

    The public’s darling: the Mercedes Grand-Prix car at the race track.

    “Riding Mechanic”.

    100 years after DePalma’s triumph, a Mercedes Grand Prix car is again taking to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Wingard and his son-in-law Pat Gould, on board as co-driver (“riding mechanic”), wave to the applauding motorsport fans as the white racing car performs its lap of honour. The former Senator of the US state of Oregon has owned the car since 1981. It is the car that Christian Lautenschlager drove to victory in the 1914 French Grand Prix. Wingard knows literally every screw as it was he who restored the car. There’s one simple reason why the original Indy-winning car of 1915 isn’t here at the start: DePalma’s car was lost without trace at some time during World War Two.

    Applause for the white classic.

    It’s all the same to the many fans gathered in the stands. They applaud the white classic and its occupants as they negotiate the 2.5-mile long oval. Incidentally, the Grand Prix car is the first but not the only Indy 500-winning car to display the three-pointed star.

    The racing driver and the mechanic of the Mercedes Grand Prix car.

    In 1994, Al Unser Junior celebrated victory in the USA’s premier race driving the Penske-Mercedes PC 23.

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