Hellé Nice - a forgotten hero of pre-war motor racing rediscovered
The story of Hellé Nice – one of the great motorsport heroes of the 30s and among the first female racing drivers to rise to international stardom – is being rediscovered by a stunning illustrated novel.
Motoring enthusiasts often tend to think of women in motorsport as a recent phenomenon - something still out of the ordinary and just picking up the pace in the last decade as gender equality in sports becomes a more discussed topic.
A deeper awareness for social issues, including the importance of diversity and inclusion in sports – joining forces with the ever so powerful media global reach – have certainly played a crucial role in the recent rise of female talents in motorsport, who could count on role models breaking into the echelons of the sport in the past 10 years.
But what is important to note, is that female participation at the top levels of motor racing is not a prerogative of our millennia. Far from it.
The 70s and early 80s were full of remarkable talent, most famously crowned by the last female participation in Formula 1 of Italian Lella Lombardi, who scored half a point at the 1975 Spanish GP. Divina Galica and Desiré Wilson also attempted to qualify for the pinnacle of single-seater racing, while Janet Guthrie became the first woman at the Indianapolis 500 in the US. In rallying, Michéle Mouton would battle for the world championship title a few years later.
We would have to wait until the early 2000s to have more successful women able to inspire the younger generations to follow their motor racing dreams: Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher, Katherine Legge, Susie Wolff.
But the often forgotten era of pre-war motorsport provides us with some truly exceptional examples of pioneering heroes – both male and female.
Women have been part of the history of this sport since the very beginning – and not just as wives, partners or in modeling roles. They have been driving race cars that with today's eyes it's even hard to believe could whiz at those speeds around some of the most terrifying street circuits ever conceived. They were sometimes mechanics, in an era where racing was surely less about state-of-the-art engineering and more about sheer courage.
What these women often lacked, though, was visibility.
Some of them did enjoy international stardom – only to be completely forgotten almost a century later. This is the story of Hellé Nice, a French race car driver that loved extreme challenges and rose to international fame during the roaring 20s; a story that should deserve a place among the greatest stars of the sport but that has instead been buried under the dust for years, also due to a series of mysteries and controversies.
Hellé Nice, née Mariette Hélène Delangle in 1900 just outside of Paris, surely was a trailblazer: fascinated by speed, adrenaline and by the growing Grand Prix scene, she decided that driving fast cars faster than her men counterparts was her ultimate goal, after two previous careers as a model and dancer in her twenties. Having chosen her stage name of Hellé Nice and after having earned enough money to buy her first race car, she was initially turned down because of her gender.
Nice would then switch to alpine skiing, but a serious accident on the slopes compromised both her careers as dancer and as skier. She then committed to her passion for motor racing and a world record in Montlhéry – France's first permanent racetrack – finally allowed the motoring world to take her seriously.
She took several victories in women-only races – but it was among the men that Hellé wanted to leave her mark, as she rubbed shoulders with the most popular names at the time.
Entering over 70 events and 32 Grand Prix races – which at the time were not yet sanctioned under the name of F1 – Nice quickly made a name for herself and became one of the most famous racing drivers in the world.
Her impressive talent behind the wheel and popularity soon translated into advertisement contracts, as she became brand ambassador for several companies and started to tour the world. Among these partnerships, one that surely marked her career was the link with French auto-maker Bugatti, whose iconic blue became a trademark for Nice.
The 'Bugatti Queen', as she was often labelled, continued to steal the limelight on racetracks until another serious accident: at the 1936 Grand Prix of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Hellé Nice went off on the final lap of the race while she was running in third place and suffered a terrifying crash that would kill 6 spectators and left the popular driver in a coma. She survived, but then had to rebuild her career from scratch.
The second World War posed more threats to her journey and false allegations linking her to a Nazi spy story terminated her adventure in post-war motorsport. Once wealthy and glamorous, Nice died alone and penniless, estranged by her family.
Hellé Nice lived a fast life and her story is now being rediscovered by an outstanding illustrated novel that aims to restore the memory of one of motor racing's true pioneers and ground-breaking women. "Roaring: the Dramatic Journey of Hellé Nice", published by Lionel Lucas and co-written by Manon Bossennec – a distant cousin of Nice – the beautifully illustrated book features materials from the original archives, letters, drawings and pictures found in a forgotten suitcase.
The hand-made artworks of Marine Franiatte and Yannick Bourgoing capture the essence of a magical yet dramatic era, made of fast cars and tragic accidents, international celebrities and European nobility, boundary-breaking achievements and mysteries.
The 144 pages of 'Rugissant' – its French title – are at the centre of a crowdfunding campaign on the Ulule platform, as funds will help cover the costs for an English translated version, the award-winning high-quality printing, the historical research, as well as a share of the profits will go towards the charity 'La Roue Tourne', an association that supported Hellé Nice at the end of her life.
The book is available for pre-order until 27th June 2021, as early bidders will receive a numbered limited edition.
As the authors state, Hellé Nice was unfairly treated and deleted from collective memories. It's time to restore her place among the great motorsport champions.