An Exhilarating Tale of European Auto Racing on the Eve of World War II

(Stock photo via Pixabay; Book cover via Amazon)
Neal Bascomb’s account of the improbable victory of René Dreyfus over Nazi Germany’s elite racing team has speed, depth, and poetry.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE R ace cars . . . Nazis . . . Monaco . . . a brash heiress and taciturn underdog . . . an epic showdown in the Pyrénées. It’s hard not to fall in love with Faster, Neil Bascomb’s brisk new portrait of European auto racing on the eve of World War II. Assuming we’ll be able to venture out of doors this summer (a big “if” at this point), Faster gets my vote for the season’s most exhilarating and substantive beach read. It’s precision-engineered for Hollywood, and, as far as I can tell, it’s all true.

There is alchemy at work in a piece of writing that approximates the rhythms of racing. At pivotal moments, the sentences fire in escalating, compact bursts—each stalking the next like the cars crowding each other on the winding city-streets of an old-style Grand Prix. One imagines Bascomb’s laptop fitted with a gearbox. But while it’s easy enough to describe how the book feels, it’s more difficult to explain what it’s about—at least in a line or two. The unwieldy subtitle—“How a Jewish driver, an American heiress, and a legendary car beat Hitler’s best”—makes the attempt, but the messy human drama contained in Faster’s pages spills outside the checkboxes those words suggest. To his credit, Bascomb (Hunting Eichmann) is too fine a writer and too conscientious a journalist to ever make more than a half-hearted attempt to keep his subjects in line with those labels.

Let’s start with the first of these, the Jewish driver; and perhaps in tracing his arc we can get some sense of the underlying story of Faster. René Dreyfus was one of the preeminent French racers of the pre–World War II era, a driver known for his “scientific” approach, unflappable attitude, and fondness for innovation. (He achieved his first major win at the 1930 Monaco Grand Prix by outfitting his car with an extra fuel tank so he wouldn’t need to make a pit stop.) But the growing wave of antisemitism across Europe in the 1930s frustrated his ambition to compete on one of the top teams. By all rights he ought to have been a first-round pick for Mercedes, known throughout the racing world for their fearsome and seemingly unbeatable “Silver Arrow” cars. But Hitler’s co-opting of German racing as a propaganda arm for the Third Reich made such dreams impossible. The second half of the decade found Dreyfus undervalued, underutilized, and emotionally adrift, which brings us to . . .

The American heiress: Lucy Schell. Blessed with a dual American-French parentage, an apparently bottomless pocketbook, and an all-consuming obsession with racing, Lucy set out to make her mark in the largely male-dominated world of motorsport—first as a driver in the Monte Carlo Rally (an ambitious competition in which each contestant set out from a specified starting point somewhere in Europe with the goal of reaching Monte Carlo faster than the others), and later as a team owner. While assembling her Ecurie Blue team, she recognized in both René Dreyfus and the automaker Delahaye (previously known for its sturdy but unassuming trucks) an opportunity to buy low and sell high. She positioned Dreyfus as her star driver and bankrolled the design and manufacture of the Delahaye 145, a car initially derided for its ungainly appearance. Dreyfus’s handling of this so-called “praying mantis” quickly silenced all critics, however, when he claimed the “Million Franc” speed prize in 1937 and proceeded on to a David vs. Goliath victory over . . .

Hitler’s best. In a broad sense, this refers to the Mercedes team—from the top-notch drivers down to the pit crew whose routine was drilled to military precision. But in a very specific sense this means Rudi Caracciola, one of the greatest drivers in racing history and quite possibly the most fascinating character in a book full of them. Caracciola transcended his turbulent and violence-tinged youth to become a star driver in the early 1930s, only to be beset by a pair of tragedies—first, a debilitating road accident from which few predicted he would ever regain the ability to walk, let alone race; then, just as he was recovering, the death of his wife Charly in an avalanche. The fact that a gimp-legged, pain-afflicted, bereaved driver could re-ascend to dominance over all his competitors amid a changed political climate that held no tolerance for physical or emotional weakness was an astonishing feat—arguably a greater “triumph of the will” than anything Germany’s Führer could lay claim to. By the time Caracciola went up against Dreyfus in the 1938 Pau Grand Prix, the German driver was considered unassailable, which made the outcome of that race all the more astonishing.

But no spoilers! It’s easy to ascertain from the book’s subtitle who prevailed at Pau, but Bascomb’s tour-de-force depiction of how it happened solidifies Faster as an instant sportswriting classic. I challenge anyone who gets to this climactic chapter to do anything other than burn through the whole thing in one sitting.

Bascomb’s two great strengths as a nonfiction writer are his ability to create immersive scenes and his adherence to Hemingway’s “show, don’t tell” principle. He only falters when he deviates from the latter directive. While the instances of this are not frequent enough to impinge on one’s enjoyment, they are worth considering briefly. Perhaps consciously, perhaps not, Bascomb sometimes brings a modern-era lens to his subjects even when his close reporting cuts against such an approach. There is a sporadic inclination to cast Dreyfus and Schell as avengers of their aggrieved groups—Jews and women, respectively—which is problematic because, on a scene-by-scene level, they come across as self-reliant individuals who largely shunned notions of group identity. By Bascomb’s own account, Dreyfus did not consider himself to be Jewish, he downplayed the role of his ethnic background in his victories, and his one direct quote on the topic of his identity is hardly a rallying cry. “I am listed in the Encyclopedia of Jews in Sports,” he wrote. “Were there one, I would qualify for the Catholic sport encyclopedia too.” (Dreyfus converted to Catholicism in his twenties). Undoubtedly, Dreyfus had to fight innumerable uphill battles because of his background, but typical of many of his generation he kept whatever resentments he felt about this largely to himself. Lucy Schell was more forthright in her appeals for recognition and fair treatment, but even so, there seems little grounding in Bascomb’s speculations on what might have been discussed when Schell recruited Dreyfus for Ecurie Blue:

Perhaps Lucy told René about always being the outsider looking to make good . . . a woman in a sport ruled by men; a wife and mother who preferred the garage and the racetrack over the conventional hearth and home. . . . Perhaps she called his attention to the fact that he was an outsider too. . . . Even if he did not hear the slights or see the looks, they happened nonetheless. Together they could tip the scales in their favor, the outsiders atop the Grand Prix. Imagine it.

Bascomb goes on in this vein for a couple of paragraphs before concluding, “Whether Lucy spoke of all or none of this, whether she needed to or not, René was bowled over by this fascinating lady ‘who talked a very good story.’”

There is no fault in Bascomb’s speculating on what might have transpired in an unrecorded conversation; this is a key ingredient to literary nonfiction and is one of the things that distinguishes the genre from standard journalism. It just feels in this case that the imagined dialogue is out of character for both parties. Dreyfus seems to have been a stoic type who would likely have been embarrassed by such a line of conversation. And Lucy, while independent-minded and clearly carrying a chip on her shoulder, would probably have had a solid enough understanding of her prospective collaborator to not go there.

Bascomb is on surer footing when he highlights the significance of Dreyfus’s Jewishness to his adversaries—not Caracciola specifically, who cynically exploited the Reich’s patronage for his own gain and sat out the war in Switzerland—but the German propaganda machine that pumped the narrative of Aryan supremacy. The fact that a Jew piloting a car that appeared to be held together by spit and duct tape trounced Germany’s supposedly perfect drivers in their supposedly perfect Silver Arrows was a humiliating blow that no amount of spin could alleviate. And perhaps Dreyfus’s ambivalence toward his ethnicity matters little in light of the effect his victory had on a younger generation of Jews desperately in need of, in Bascomb’s words, “harbingers of hope,” while the Nazi menace began to spread across Europe.

So, on one level, Faster is very much the story of the Jewish driver and American heiress taking on the Nazis that the book jacket describes. But on another, it is the story of a ragtag assortment of individuals—in all their soulful unruliness and inefficiency—trouncing an unfeeling, homogenous, hyper-disciplined, hyper-efficient collective. And an argument can be made that Rudi Caracciola, despite his perhaps unforgivable moral compromises, had more in common with the former camp even if circumstances and ambition landed him in the latter. René seemed to think so. Later in life, René displayed photos of Caracciola alongside shots of his friends and fellow drivers in his successful New York restaurant, implying an affinity for Caracciola even though Rudi had raced for them.

Readers will certainly come away with an appreciation for Bascomb’s deft portraits of these dynamic personalities, and for his miraculous excavation of an entirely new story from the over-tilled soils of World War II nonfiction. Whatever its very minor shortcomings, there is speed, poetry, and depth to Faster and I recommend it highly.

Robert Dean Lurie — Mr. Lurie is the author, most recently, of Begin the Begin: R.E.M.’s Early Years.

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