On July 22, at the age of 93, Ralph Liguori passed away and the auto racing world lost a treasure. “Ralphie The Racer” was a guy with a passion for climbing behind the wheel who became woven into the fabric of auto racing history.
He was a kid from the Bronx who never lost his New York accent.
Liguori competed in his first race in 1949 at Freeport Speedway on Long Island and launched a career that included piloting midgets, Champ Cars, sprint cars, stock cars, Indy cars … and even motorcycles.
When “Big Bill” France started his NASCAR series, Ralph was one of his guys. He made 10 attempts to qualify for the Indy 500, coming closest in 1959 and ‘63. He won three USAC National Sprint Car Series races. And, he was always – always – a crowd favorite.
Ralphie was the guy who race fans pulled for – he was David going up against Goliath each night, a loveable guy who squeezed every ounce of speed out of a blue-collar race car while competing against the champagne teams.
Several years back, at a memorable and very enjoyable dinner with Ralph and his wonderful wife Jane, he shared the story of his retirement from regularly competing. At the time, two brothers had entered the midget racing scene with a family-funded team that provided the best equipment money could buy.
One night as Ralph sat in the staging lane in his low-buck mount, he turned to his left and saw one of the brothers sitting in his car alongside of him. The car was gorgeous and featured all high-dollar equipment.
Turning to his right, there sat the other brother in an equally high-dollar racing machine.
“Right then and there, I made a decision,” he recalled. “I decided I’ve got nothing else to prove, and I climbed out of the car in the staging lane and didn’t race that night. I was done.”
Although many in the racing community often proclaim, “Racing’s always been expensive,” that’s not the case. When Ralph began his racing career, a racer could compete without corporate sponsors and expensive equipment.
When he began competing in NASCAR events, the couple would drive to the track in the race car. All the seats other than the driver’s seat had been removed. That way, Ralph had room to put a small mattress where the back seat had been.
Jane would drive the car to the race while Ralph slept behind her on the mattress. When they arrived at the track, they would put tape over the headlights and go racing.
So no, racing wasn’t always expensive.
On one memorable occasion, Ralph got a call from Bill France. It wasn’t uncommon for France to call asking if he could count on him to be competing in the next NASCAR event.
In this particular case, Ralph had to explain that he wasn’t planning on making the race. Something had gone through his radiator, and Liguori had repaired it enough to drive it home, but not enough to race it.
Simply put, he needed a new radiator and couldn’t afford one.
“Hold on for a second,” France replied, and Ralph could hear him speaking with someone before returning to the phone. “If you can drive it down here, I’ve got you a radiator lined up.”
Ralph agreed, and France gave him an address.
When Ralph and Jane arrived at the address, it turned out that France had been sitting in the local police chief’s office, and it was the chief that he had been speaking with. The police cars were equipped with the same oversized radiators that the stock car racers of the day were using.
“I pulled into the parking lot, and these cops came out and they pulled the radiator out of one of the police cars and then they put it in my car, and I went racing,” Liguori recalled.
Despite his experiences in NASCAR and Indy cars, it’s his short track, open-wheel racing endeavors that really drove his career: memorable runs in sprint cars or midgets, and holding the Champ Car track record at the treacherous Langhorne when it was still dirt.
Grandson Joe Liguori has picked up the mantle from his legendary grandfather, racing sprint cars, midgets, and Silver Crown, and earning championships with USAC’s regional Midwest Series and the UMARA.
It’s good that there’s a Liguori out there continuing to add to the family legacy.
Ralphie won’t be remembered for his win totals. I hope he won’t be remembered for his attempts to make the field at Indy. But I can say that I will remember him as one of the most likeable guys who ever raced, who had a racing heart much larger than his budget.
But moreso, he’s one of the guys who truly built this sport that we all enjoy today, and I hope no one ever forgets that.