New book chronicles story of Jewish race car driver who beat Hitler’s best

A Jewish race car driver embarrassed the Nazis on the race track to the point where Hitler sought to have his car destroyed.

By Joseph Wolkin, World Israel News

Faster: How a Jewish Driver, an American Heiress, and a Legendary Car Beat Hitler’s Best by Neal Bascomb tells the story of René Dreyfus, a Jewish French Grand Prix racer who took on the Germans.

With Hitler’s rise to power, Dreyfus, despite being a top racer, was banned from racing for the best teams with the best cars because he was a Jew.

He teamed up with Paris native Lucy Schell, a larger-than-life character and daughter of an American industrialist, who also raced cars. They were joined by Delahaye, a struggling French auto company.

Bascomb chronicles how they went on to face the Hitler-supported Silver Arrows, the dominant Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union Grand Prix motor racing cars of the period.

Bascomb spoke to World Israel News about his new book.

Q: How did you come up with the idea to pen this book?

“I came across the idea actually through a friend of mine who works at the Wall Street Journal. He was sent a press release about this car called the Delahaye 145 that collector Peter Mullin was showing at Pebble Beach. It had a very interesting backstory of Hitler’s trips trying to find it to have it destroyed. He said, ‘It’s a story that’s right up your alley.’ It was with René Dreyfus and I connected with the family. They were very helpful, and I just started down the course of it to write about René and particularly about Lucy.”

Q: How did you get started writing this and tracking down the history of all this?

“It was very hard. It was one of my more difficult books in terms of research because, at the end of the day, there’s not huge archives of automobile history for the Delahaye factory records or anything. Archival records are held largely by private collectors, who have garages full of stuff from Émile Delahaye or a particular race car driver. I tracked down those people and getting them to open up their file doors for me was a pretty huge effort. Evelyn Dreyfus, René’s niece, sat down with me and gave me a 600-page scrapbook of news articles, letters, photographs and in multiple languages. It opened up this huge window of who René was and also Lucy.”

Q: How long did it take to compile?

“The research took about 12 to 14 months. It took another year to write it and fill in various holes from the research. I took trips to France, Germany and Italy to track down various records and interview people.”

Q: What did you learn on those trips overseas?

“I interviewed people who knew René and Lucy. They had first-hand experiences with them. In terms of René and his Jewish identity, I found a lot of it in the French papers. Grand Prix racing, at the time, was the top sport, so a lot of journalists were writing about it. They were very clearly anti-Semitic, particularly in the German press towards René.”

Q: How much did the anti-Semitism bother him?

“He was absolutely crushed by it. He was at the top of his game in terms of racing. He was at the premier time to be one of the top racers. Suddenly, he was like a jockey without a horse. He flailed around trying to figure out who to race for. Ultimately, Lucy came to him and he raced for her in the Delahaye. You can just tell how desperate he was by the fact he accepted because Delahaye was not about Grand Prix racing. It was run by an inexperienced team manager who was also an American woman. They had no race car yet, and he knew he was taking a leap of faith.”

Q: What was the journey like for you to discover how politics and motor sports came together?

“It was fascinating to me how much this period of time before World War II — we read stories about World War II and the heroics of people during it — the 1930s showed how this was slowly unrolling. You find Grand Prix motor sports became a civil war. Much of my research was focused on understanding the dynamic of what it was for a Jew to be racing in a world where fascism was overtaking everything.”

Q: His story almost seems unreal as you go through it.

“It just exposes so many different things from this period of time. It shows what the Germans were doing in sport and on the international stage. It was a microcosm of their advancements and the nature of their schemes.”

Q: And then here comes René with a female car owner and they embarrass the Germans.

“At the time, the Dreyfus name, although René wasn’t related to Alfred Dreyfus [from the Dreyfus Affair], was known as a Jewish name in Europe. To have a Dreyfus and an American woman sort of decimate you on the Grand Prix stage was a huge embarrassment.”

Q: What was the reaction to all of this in America at the time?

“Grand Prix racing was covered in American newspapers. It definitely made an impact. There were articles about what René did.”

Q: What is the biggest lesson you want people to take away from this book?

“For me, it was about [the fact that] not everyone can be the political leader of a nation. You have to take on the fight within your community for what you think is just and right. I think that’s what Lucy was doing. Her world was motor sports, and she wanted to do something. She decided to take on the Germans in the Grand Prix. The struggle begins in your community.”