You have the Jesse Owens upset at the 1936 Olympics. The American rowing team–depicted in The Boys in the Boat–also at the 1936 Olympics. Where does René Dreyfus’ legacy fit into this?
I love that you asked this straight away because it gets to the heart of Faster. The Owens and rowing team upsets are very much David vs. Goliath tales. Americans seizing victory in the heart of Nazi Germany. With René, he also beats Adolf Hitler’s best and strikes at the seeming invincibility of the Third Reich.
That said, I would argue that his triumph has more symbolic heft and importance…though I’m sure that might raise a bit of a ruckus! First of all, Rene was Jewish—and given the particularly evil vehemence of the Nazis against anybody of that religion and heritage—his victory was even more of an embarrassment to the “master race.”
Secondly, dominance in the motorsport is a centerpiece of Hitler’s agenda when he comes to power. In fact, the second major political speech he gives is at the 1933 Berlin Motor Show. There, Hitler promotes automobiles as a path toward economic revival. After its defeat in World War I, and being hit particularly hard by the Great Depression, Germany is especially eager to utilize the Grand Prix as evidence of the superior quality of German engineering and industry. It isn’t just a car race. To lose there is the ultimate shame—and that’s exactly what René delivers.
There’s the heiress, Lucy O’Reilly Schell; Charles Weiffenbach managing the fledgling Delahaye car company; and René Dreyfus, a French-born Jewish race car driver. Three seemingly disparate characters that came together to triumph over the Nazis. How does this association even come about?
Everything started with Delahaye. In the 1930s the company is on the brink of bankruptcy. One critic said that their cars were best built to be part of a funeral procession…which is not very nice, but that’s how slow, boxy, and dull they were. Charles Weiffenbach spearheads a bold gambit: develop a line of sports cars and promote the Delahaye name by winning races. Remarkably—and thanks to a brilliant engineer named Jean Francois—they do exactly that.
Then comes Lucy Schell. She is the top American Monte Carlo Rally driver. She needs a new car and comes calling to Sir Charles. She is so impressed with the Delahaye sports car that she decides to fund their efforts to build a Grand Prix race car, which is a much more challenging, difficult proposition. Her ambition is to take on the German Silver Arrow cars built by Mercedes-Benz that have come to rule motorsport. Once again, Jean Francois comes up with a path-breaking solution, but now Lucy needs a driver. Top Grand Prix drivers don’t exactly fall from trees, particularly ones without a team.
But, because of the rise of fascism across Germany and Italy, Rene is banned from the best teams and the fastest cars. Essentially, he’s a jockey without a horse. Lucy invites him to lead her team and thus, history is made!
Can you speak on the impact of Lucy Schell and what she does for the racing industry if anything?
Fighting convention and rampant sexism every step of the way, Lucy forges new paths in racing. A nurse in WWI, she went on to become one of the first speed queens—the Danica Patrick of her day, if you will. For almost half a decade, Lucy is one of the best Monte Carlo Rallyers, man or woman. She is surely the top-ranked American. She is also the first woman to fund and lead her own Grand Prix race car team. It is her car and her driver, René Dreyfus, that beats the German Silver Arrows and wins the Million Franc prize for Delahaye.
Restoring her rightful position in motorsports is one of my proudest accomplishments in this book.
How does Hitler attempt to “erase” this race from the history books?
“An undisputed and indisputable victory” read the headlines throughout France after René triumphs over Nazi Germany. It is front-page news across the globe. The Germans are at best embarrassed by the loss. No doubt Berlin is furious. So when the Nazis seize Paris, they try and eliminate any record of the opening race of the 1938 Grand Prix. They literally take the records from the Automobile Club de France and they are never seen again. There are heated warnings that Hitler intends to destroy the four Delahaye 145s built that beat his Silver Arrows. To avoid this calamity, Lucy and Delahaye have the race cars hidden—much like the treasured artwork from the Louvre—in locations far from the capital. It’s incredible to think about.
Racing is inherently dangerous, much more so without modern safety precautions. Did you get a feel for this danger while touring the race course in Monte Carlo?
No crash helmets. No cage. No seatbelts or harnesses of any type. This was what it was like to be a Grand Prix driver in the 1930s. Drivers are dying–or crashing severely–at events every weekend. Ambulances are simply called “bone collectors”.
To get a sense of that danger, I had the opportunity to drive in a restored Delahaye. Same engine. Same chassis. Same body. It was a horrifying and exhilarating experience. Touring the famous courses in Monte Carlo, Pau, and the Nurburgring and Montlhery and thinking about taking some of their turns and corners at breakneck speed remains dizzying to recall. In Faster, one of my ambitions was to convey this sense on the page…what’s it’s like to be in an open-roofed Grand Prix car barreling down a slick serpentine hill, mere inches between the driver and a concrete wall, competitors ahead, competitors behind, the wind and sound and fury….that’s what I hope readers experience.
Is René Dreyfus one of the great drivers of his era or just the right driver at the right time?
For several years René is ranked among the top 10 drivers in the Grand Prix. So he is good. Very good. But in terms of natural ability, he is by no means like the Italian Tazio “Flying Mantuan” Nuvolari. Nuvolari is the best in the world at that time. When René is really struggling at Bugatti the team manager says that he could be one of the greatest drivers in the world but that he isn’t, ”aggressive enough. [He is] too steady, too dependable…and [he] need[s] something to struggle and fight for.” Lucy helps René realize these qualities and darkly, the Nazis gave him a mission. This was how he beats them.
What was the most enjoyable aspect of researching this book? And in turn, the most difficult?
I’ll take the bad news question first. The most difficult was the lack of public archives related to these events. Short of the Mercedes-Benz files, which were open and very helpful, most of the primary research was owned by private collectors. Needless to say, a charm offensive was necessary.
On the most enjoyable side, touring the great race courses in Europe, zooming through an orange grove at breakneck speed in a restored Delahaye 145, and perhaps most of all, writing about Lucy. She leaped from the page, and she had such enthusiasm for racing and life that it was spell-binding.
The final dreaded question: What’s next for you? What are you working on?
For the first time, I am writing an original YA book [Young Adult] for Scholastic, which I’m super excited about on many levels. It’s called MARCH TO THE SEA and focuses on the first peace march in history—and one that had enormous ramifications in India—as well as the non-violent peace movement overall. More to come shortly on that!
Faster will hit bookshelves on March 17, 2020.