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.