Faster: How a Jew­ish Dri­ver, an Amer­i­can Heiress, and a Leg­endary Car Beat Hitler’s Best

  • Review
By – October 19, 2020

Neil Bascomb’s com­pelling sto­ry of the death-defy­ing feats of Euro­pean race car dri­vers on the eve of World War II, paints a sober­ing pic­ture of the way nation­al­ism and sports often come togeth­er for pro­pa­gan­da purposes.

Bas­comb intro­duces us to the dare­dev­ils who reg­u­lar­ly risked their lives in a sport that jour­nal­ist Rod­ney Walk­er­ley described as being, bal­anced on the very brink of death.” The read­er comes to under­stand the dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties of the rac­ers and the way this influ­enced the way they com­pet­ed and the risks they took. The dri­ver ref­er­enced in the book’s sub­ti­tle, French­man René Drey­fus, found him­self with lim­it­ed oppor­tu­ni­ties because his father was Jew­ish. Drey­fus even­tu­al­ly joined the inde­pen­dent auto rac­ing team formed by the Amer­i­can heiress Lucy Schell — a tal­ent­ed rac­er in her own right.

The book also cov­ers the tumul­tuous peri­od of pre-World War II Europe, as well as the major impact nation­al­ism had on the sport of auto rac­ing. Ger­man dri­vers, for exam­ple, were expect­ed to engage in full-throat­ed endorse­ments of Nazi par­ty poli­cies. The rac­ers were cel­e­brat­ed in the Nazi press and made appear­ances along­side Hitler. News­pa­pers trum­pet­ed each vic­to­ry and wrote with great pride of the tal­ent of their race car design­ers and the brav­ery of their dri­vers — who com­pet­ed in con­tests that were won by mere sec­onds, and set speed records that were bro­ken by frac­tions of a second.

The author moves the plot along by inter­spers­ing descrip­tions of the races — which all too often end­ed in acci­dents and fatal­i­ties — with details about the lives of the rac­ers them­selves. It is fas­ci­nat­ing to learn how pas­sion­ate­ly these dri­vers felt about rac­ing, even though they knew that if one small thing went wrong, they might not live to see anoth­er race.

The read­er also comes to under­stand the incred­i­bly com­plex process of design­ing, build­ing, and tweak­ing every aspect of the var­i­ous race cars. Every­thing from the fuel com­po­si­tion to the way the tires held up under extreme heat and pres­sure could make the dif­fer­ence between a glo­ri­ous vic­to­ry or an igno­min­ious defeat.

Bas­comb gives the read­er a fas­ci­nat­ing win­dow into the lives and moti­va­tions of peo­ple who loved noth­ing more than fly­ing around a race­track at breath­tak­ing speeds, thrilling their fans and tak­ing their place in the his­to­ry books along­side those who lived — and died — for their sport.

Shi­ra R. Lon­don is the librar­i­an at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Com­mu­ni­ty High School in Bal­ti­more, MD. She holds an M.L.S. from Colum­bia University.

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