If Hollywood wants to continue its love affair with motorsport movies (Ford v Ferrari, The Art of Racing in the Rain), someone should immediately start turning Faster: How a Jewish Driver, an American Heiress, and a Legendary Car Beat Hitler’s Best into a screenplay.
The book, publishing March 17 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is by Neal Bascomb, whose previous subjects have ranged from building skyscrapers to athletes’ quest to break the 4-minute mile, and he’s done several volumes on efforts to undermine Nazi war efforts and to hunt down Nazi leaders after World War II.
Faster has all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster. As the subtitle indicates, there is the Jewish driver, Rene Dreyfus; an American heiress, Lucy Schell, the first woman to have her own Grand Prix team; a legendary car, the “Million Franc” 1937 Delahaye 145; and, of course, the hated Nazis.
Although he’d written several books about World War II, Bascomb admitted that he had never heard the story of the team that beat Germany’s best until about four years ago, when a friend pointed out a news article about Peter Mullin unveiling the latest gem in his collection, the “Million Franc” Delahaye that had been financed by an American heiress and driven to victory against the famed Silver Arrows of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union by a driver of Jewish heritage.
“His sport had become lost in the widening chasm between countries,” Bascome writes of Dreyfus. “Races were increasingly a battleground between national rather than individual drivers, and the Nazis were clearly investing to dominate.”
“It did not take a genius to know this was a remarkable sports story, perhaps better even than Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics,” Bascomb is quoted in a news release that accompanied a pre-publication “advance reading” copy of the book.
“Even better,” Bascomb continues, “Hitler sought to destroy the Delahaye when he invaded France, and the car was dissembled and hidden to avoid discovery. After years of restoration efforts, Mullin had brought the car back to its former glory. Even after focusing on this story for three years, I still get excited thinking about it.”
Bascomb’s “focus” is shared in more than 50 pages of sources and footnotes at the end of the book, which is written and flows more in the style of a work of fiction than the sometimes-dry unfolding of an academic volume of non-fiction. Faster not only is the title of the book, but the way you’ll be reading as you go further into its pages.
And while Dreyfus and Schell may be the primary characters, we meet the European racing stars and the makers of their racing cars of the pre-war era and explore their lives and their motivations.
Yet the book is so delightfully detailed you might wonder if Bascomb hadn’t been present to see the drama unfold. Consider his noting that one of Count Eliot Zborowski’s cuff links snagged on the hand throttle in his racing car and Zborowski died when he couldn’t slow enough to make a turn. Or that years later, Dreyfus would triple-knot the laces of his driving shoes, then would clip off the ends of the laces to prevent them snagging on a pedal.
The book presents a series of dramas, of conflicts internal and among competitors, be they opponents on the race track or nations battling on the world stage.
The good news is that you don’t have to wait for the Hollywood version in two or three years. You can read it now, and then ponder — or debate with your buddies — whom you’d pick to play the various roles in the big-screen production version.
Faster: How a Jewish Driver, an American Heiress, and a Legendary Car Beat Hitler’s Best
By Neal Bascomb
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020
Hardcover, 368 pages