Meet Lucy Schell, the Pioneering Rally Driver Who Beat the Nazis
I love history. I’ve spent a fair share of the past two decades chronicling the stories of people from the past. Typically they are narratives of extraordinary achievement or inspiration, whether the architect aiming to build the tallest skyscraper in the world, the first runner to break the four-minute mile, or saboteurs attempting to stop Hitler from obtaining the bomb.
Profiles from history have their own resonance, and I can’t help myself but to continue to explore them. A dozen times a year or so, I’ll turn back the clock to such times past and offer a HistoryCraft post. A few will come from my books, but others will spring from new investigations.
Today I’ve sent you a profile of Lucy Schell from FASTER, my pre-WWII narrative about one of the most momentous David vs. Goliath stories in sports history (check the end of this post for a special offer on a signed edition). Although scarcely known, Lucy was the first—and only woman still—to launch, finance, and run her own Grand Prix motor racing team. She was also a fearless, path-breaking driver on her own.
This is an edited excerpt from my opening chapter featuring her. If you ever wondered what it was like to participate in the famed Monte Carlo Rally, here you go. This was her workcraft. Hope you enjoy!
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“What if their car went into the ditch four times?” Lucy Schell, an American heiress and rally driver, boomed in English over the crowded Parisian restaurant. “Is that a good reason to forfeit?”
Thirty-five years old, thin, ruddy-faced, blue-eyed, with bobbed auburn hair, Lucy commanded the room. In fact, she commanded any room she occupied, all five feet, four inches of her, whether she was dressed in haute couture in a city restaurant or oil-stained overalls in a garage. Her husband, Laury, to whom she had addressed her remark, did not protest. Laury was Lucy’s opposite in every way — as reserved and quiet as she was lively and attractive.
At that moment, Lucy spotted the Le Journal reporter, Jacques Marsillac, across the restaurant. Her bright smile widened as she approached him, and in flawless French, she said, “At last! There you are. Come, I’ll introduce you. We were talking about the Rally.” Once seated at the table, Marsillac got an earful about what lay ahead for him in the 1932 Monte Carlo Rally. A distinguished war correspondent, he had been sent by his popular Parisian daily to accompany Lucy on her next adventure.
Launched in 1911, the Rally was a supreme test of endurance for its participants and their automobiles. As one journalist wrote, “There comes a moment when respectable drivers of unblemished reputation see imaginary elephants in pink pajamas wandering on French main roads where no elephants should be. That is the crux of the run.” Each winter run brought a new wrinkle in how to push both cars and drivers to their limits. For the 1932 Rally, competitors would start from their choice of nineteen far-flung places, including Stavanger, Norway; Gibraltar off southern Spain; Athens, Greece; and Palermo, Sicily. As always, the finish line was in Monte Carlo.
The greater the distance traveled, the greater the challenge and the higher the number of points to be earned by the drivers. Drivers needed to reach control stations during a specific window of time to prove that they were maintaining an average speed of at least 25 mph. At first blush, this seemed slow to Marsillac, but Lucy explained how difficult it was to meet even that pace given that no allowances would be made for sleep, food, refueling, repairs, poor navigation, or accidents.
The Schells planned to tackle the second-longest route, starting in Umeå, Sweden, 100 miles from the Arctic Circle and some 2,300 miles from Monte Carlo. The almost nonstop journey would take four days and three nights. When the teams arrived in Monaco, they would have to undertake a convoluted series of tests of their driving skills to determine the ultimate winner. Although he was no delicate flower, Marsillac was cowed by such an adventure, particularly when he learned about the icy road conditions. That the pilot was a woman made him even more uneasy. Fortunately for him, he kept that fear to himself — nor did he ask why a mother of two adolescent boys was taking part in such a treacherous competition. Had he done so, he would have had to find another ride.
A week after the lunch, at five in the morning, the Schells arrived at the Le Journal’s offices to collect Marsillac for their journey to Sweden where their rally would begin. The couple appeared ready for a polar expedition. Lucy wore a long waterproof jacket, wool trousers, and tawny leather boots that reached her knees. When they had met for lunch, Laury had looked to Marillac like a sallow mortician. Now, in his heavy, fur-lined coat and boots, he seemed a vigorous giant.
Their black Bugatti, a midsized tourer with filleted lines of silver and red down its body, was similarly well fitted out, with mud fenders, spare tires lashed to its sides, and three headlights perched on a bar at the front. Inside, there was enough gear to mount a siege: food stores, mechanic’s tools, picks, shovels, rope, tire chains, and a block-and-tackle set that could lift the car out of a ditch. There was so much stuff that Marsillac had to burrow himself a space on the back seat underneath a pile of luggage, blankets, and camera equipment.
“When do we sleep?” asked Marsillac.