Faster: How a Jewish Driver, An American Heiress and a Legendary Car Beat Hitler’s Best
By Neal Bascomb
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
When Graham Greene – a Catholic Herald writer – wrote a screenplay, he liked to write the story as a novella first. The Third Man and The Fallen Idol are still in print today. This was a clever idea. First, he got paid twice; by his publisher and also by Hollywood. Second, the characters and story unfolded using the novelist’s tools of ‘speech and action’ –not through a clunky series of ‘story board’ sketches or a plot ‘synopsis’. Greene despised writing them, as they sucked the life and soul out of a story.
Faster is a fascinating magpie book of motor racing and social history. Its flaw is that it reads too much like an over-researched biopic film treatment with the logline: ‘Jewish underdog French racing driver, financed by American speed queen heiress, takes on Nazis in epic motor racing duel against the Silver Arrows around the street circuit of Pau on the eve of war.’
The story sounds as if it has all the glossy ingredients for a new Chariots of Fire motor racing epic set in the ‘blood and circuits’ world of the Silver Arrows. This was the legendary name given to Hitler’s all-conquering Nazi German 1930’s racing teams of Mercedes and Auto Union. But lift up the hood and there are problems with this book.
The first – and it is a serious one to any historian of Catholic sporting heroes of the 20th century – is that Rene Dreyfus was actually a Catholic convert, and his entry into the Church coincided with the years narrated in this book. Dreyfus had a Catholic mother and converted to the Roman faith in 1934 on marrying his French wife Chou-Chou at the request of her family. His brother Maurice – with whom he was later to open New York’s famous Le Chanteclair restaurant at 18 East 49th Street – also converted (and was the more devout).
That Rene’s boss Lucy O’Reilly Schell, the Irish-American heiress who financed her ‘Ecurie Bleu’ Delahaye privateer racing team, was almost certainly Catholic (or of Irish Catholic origin) as well is not referred to. Indeed, in this sweeping ‘round the circuits’ history of racing’s Golden Era that Bascomb refers to as ‘death-defying’, religion is hardly mentioned, whereas politics becomes a central theme towards the end.
Do Catholics, with their ‘special relationship’ with death – Dreyfus raced wearing a white silk racing suit – make faster racing drivers? Is it just a coincidence that most of the greatest racing champions have been Catholic, including Tazio Nuvalari (the Flying Mantuan) in the 1930s, Ayrton Senna (killed during the Brazilian grand prix in 1994) and Michael Schumacher?
The latter had an ‘emotional’ audience with Pope John Paul II, along with the Ferrari team; Schumacher said that the Pope’s personal audience inspired his ‘motivation and success’. In 2016, Schumacher was visited at his home by Archbishop Georg Gänswein, a confidant of Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. Senna once said of his vocation for motor racing: ‘I have no idols. I admire work, dedication and competence. If you have God on your side, everything becomes clear’.
Certainly Europe’s top drivers or team managers/owners in the 1930’s were all Catholic (or at least of ‘Catholic heritage’) including Germany’s star driver Rudi Caracciola (the family were originally Italian), Louis Chiron, the Maserati brothers, Ettore Bugatti, and Enzo Ferrari to name just some. That said, Bascomb refers to pre-race driver rituals and superstitions such as Nuvalari wearing a ‘golden tortoiseshell necklace’ and yellow jersey.
No exploration is made of whether being Catholic – whether practising or not – gave these sporting gods (in their fans’ eyes) any competitive edge, at a time when the death rate of drivers was the worst in racing history. We are only told that Dreyfus regarded his old ‘grease-stained’ leather race shoes as his ‘holy relic’. The modern day classic car collector’s quest to find these original old Delahayes is likened to a holy grail, their parts ‘religious relics’.
The story of the Delahaye Pau victory on April 10 1938 has been told many times in countless books and articles, including a feature article in Motor Sport I wrote when I was publisher and editor of the Historic Grand Prix Association’s annual yearbook. This led to co-writing (with Tony Macnabb) a four-part TV Netflix-style script with novelist Philip Kerr (creator of 1930s Berlin detective Bernie Gunther) as executive producer (‘Gladiator on wheels’).
The idea of this new book is to bring it to an audience beyond petrolheads. Although Bascomb threads the story together in a lively narrative and in an engaging – occasionally flat – style, there is little which is genuinely new.
We are repeatedly told how the likes of Dreyfus, Caracciola and the Schells were members of an exclusive driving fraternity who were non-political, and raced for the thrill of speed and winning in itself. But then, towards the end, as ‘history’s darkest hour’ looms, these louche, cosmopolitan apolitical speed merchants suddenly develop political consciences driven by personal grudges against Nazism. The effect of politicising Rene and Lucy’s racing motivations is not entirely convincing. The symbolism – ‘(‘one of the most inspiring, death-defying upsets of all time… a blow against the Nazis’) feels overcooked, unlike Dreyfus’s pre-race taste in rare steaks.
More likely Dreyfus just wanted the glory of winning, along with some good prize money. Bascomb tries too hard to shoehorn the ‘pulse-pounding tale of ‘Jewish Driver’ Rene Dreyfus triumphing over Hitler’s Silver Arrows, with the result that the book feels off balance. There is much trowelling of the fact that the Pau Grand Prix was held on April 10 1938, the same day that Hitler held his Reichstag elections and vote to ‘sanction’ Germany’s reunion with Austria. More likely, Hitler hadn’t checked the French racing calendar before he chose the date.
But despite such rough literary welding, and rather too much précis work of other more scholarly volumes – most notably Anthony Blight’s classic The French Sports Car Revolution – there is still much to enjoy. The best original material covers Lucy Schell and her slightly strange marriage to American Laury Schell, and their life at their villa – with their British bulldogs – in the Parisian suburb of Brunoy where they are both buried. Laury was killed in a motor accident near the French city of Sens in 1939 (Lucy was also badly injured).
I would have liked to know more about Lucy’s forgotten life after the war. Why, after winning the Million Franc prize challenge – raced at Montlhery, outside Paris, in August 1937 to encourage French racing cars to compete again with the best in Europe – were there was no obituaries of her when she died, aged just 56, in 1952? I was never able to track one down during my research over a decade ago.
That Lucy Schell wasn’t even present at Pau in April 1938 in fact, preferring to enter a Concours d’Elegance in Cannes, of all events, suggests that the Delahaye victory has been rose-tinted by Bascomb. Certainly, anybody reading the book would struggle to think of Dreyfus identifying himself as a ‘Catholic’ despite his formal conversion in 1934 and maternal Catholic heritage. Bascomb describes him as ‘agnostic’, saying that ‘racing’ was his true religion. Who knows whether he prayed before each race? Towards the end of his life Dreyfus liked to joke that he may be listed in the Encyclopedia of Jews in Sports but that he also qualified for the ‘Catholic sports encyclopedia’.
The truth is that considerable luck played a significant part in the Delahaye victory at Pau. Auto Union didn’t even enter and there was little other competition on the grid , or had pulled out. It was like a two horse Grand National which Mercedes regarded as a ‘trial’ or ‘dress rehearsal’. The Mercedes high performance engines were not suited to the Pau circuit and they trounced Delahaye in the bigger races of the season where Dreyfus struggled. His bigger achievement, in fact, was winning le Million Franc challenge.
There is no reference in the epilogue to the Formula One racing career of her son Harry Schell who tragically was killed in practise at Silverstone in 1960. He was the first American to drive in a FI race. Laury was a strange ‘adventurer’ character who belongs in a Somerset Maugham novel. They apparently met when she was a young nurse in Paris at a military hospital after World War I, and both shared a love of speed and rallying.
Petrol heads will not learn any more about Caracciola’s life than they can from Rudi’s own 1951 memoir A Racing Driver’s World, from which much of the German sections are compressed. The same applies the insider world of European motor racing that appears in Speed Was My Life (1958) by Mercedes motor racing manager Alfred Neubauer – another Catholic who actually took the Mercedes team on a day outing to Lourdes before the Pau race.
If somebody wants to write a less well-trodden story of ‘French Resistance’ to the might of Germany’s motor racing machine, a better tale would be that of the valiant effort of Georges Boillot – in a Peugeot – against a ‘squadron’ of Mercedes in the Grand Prix of 1914. Alas, he lost the race which would make for less appeal. It would also be a much shorter book. Boillot was shot down and killed whilst taking on seven enemy German planes on the Western Front in April 1916.
Photo: Rene Dreyfus at the 1930 Monaco Grand Prix (Wikimedia)
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