Skip to main content

Faster: How a Jewish Driver, an American Heiress, and a Legendary Car Beat Hitler’s Best

Review

Faster: How a Jewish Driver, an American Heiress, and a Legendary Car Beat Hitler’s Best

Scant months before the infamous Kristallnacht, when Hitler’s Nazi party grimly established its policy against Jews, a Jewish driver --- funded by an American socialite and driving a French auto --- won the prestigious Pau Grand Prix, defeating a Mercedes Benz, to the fury of the Führer.

Award-winning author Neal Bascomb (THE WINTER FORTRESS, HUNTING EICHMANN, THE PERFECT MILE) has constructed an intensive account of the life and career of René Dreyfus. It begins with a dramatic backstory. Days after Germany’s occupation of France in 1940, Gestapo officers strode into the Auto Club de France and began to alter the record book so that Dreyfus’ celebrated win over the German favorite would never again be known.

"Bascomb combines a wide-ranging history of racing...with the rise of the man responsible for the deaths of millions.... [S]mall, richly mined details...make Bascomb’s work memorable on numerous levels."

FASTER brings those events back to the light, focusing tightly on Dreyfus as a driver, the profession that led him to fame in his home country and well beyond. His victory in the Pau Grand Prix was proudly proclaimed in the French press and snidely underplayed in Germany. One of his racing competitors was a member of a group commonly, if disparagingly, known as the “queens” --- female racers in the thoroughly male-dominated sport of European road racing.

Lucy Schell was a wealthy young woman who was used to getting her way. After a stint as a driver in the burgeoning racing scene, she decided to invest in the production of racing cars, becoming a backer of the Delahaye, a French automobile that showed promise as a competitor to the Mercedes. She enlisted Dreyfus as a Delahaye driver at a low point in his career, offering him a chance to shine in an atmosphere that was becoming increasingly, perilously anti-Semitic. Although he was not a religious Jew, regarding his Catholic roots with equal importance, his name would be anathema to the Nazis.

When war was declared, Dreyfus left the racetrack to join the French army. But Lucy wanted him to go to the US to compete in the Indianapolis 500 in 1940. He was sure the army would never release him. But as usual, Bascomb records, “Lucy got her way.” The fortuitous move ultimately gave Dreyfus a new profession and American citizenship.

In FASTER, we hear the rumble of cars and the rumors of war. Bascomb combines a wide-ranging history of racing --- the tracks and the tricks, the storied rivalries and daredevil tactics that permeated a sport that killed many a driver --- with the rise of the man responsible for the deaths of millions. In a double irony, Dreyfus once met Hitler, having been assigned to give the leader of the Nazi party a demonstration of a Mercedes while he worked for that manufacturer. It is small, richly mined details like this that make Bascomb’s work memorable on numerous levels.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on March 20, 2020

Faster: How a Jewish Driver, an American Heiress, and a Legendary Car Beat Hitler’s Best
by Neal Bascomb

  • Publication Date: March 17, 2020
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction, Sports
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 1328489876
  • ISBN-13: 9781328489876