Today marks the 100th International Women’s Day, but despite a century of progress there is still such a long way to go until the fairer sex get a fair deal. Motorsport is one of the few sports that gives female competitors an equal chance to compete with the boys, something that should be celebrated. For those that think women in racing started with Danica Patrick – it didn’t. We’ve had plenty of women in Grand Prix, World Rallies and Danica herself has won in Indycars, so ladies burning rubber and kicking butt is nothing new.
Back in the days when the women of Europe were fighting for the vote, a petite young lady was battling the boys of the Grand Prix brigade in her Bugatti. Hellé Nice; a French model and dancer eventually found her calling as a pioneering woman who broke the mould in the oh-so-masculine world of motorsport.
Her more feminine pursuits of dancing and modeling took Hellé Nice, a gorgeous stage-name if ever there was one, from her humble rural beginnings to fame and fortune during Paris’ golden age. A consummate skier, she made the switch to wheels to get her adrenaline fix after an accident on the slopes, winning an all-girls race on her debut before progressing onto the American scene. Thanks to her time dancing in Paris, Nice was a woman with her own means, but when she started courting one Jean Bugatti she was introduced to the world of Grand Prix racing.
In 1931 she joined the all-male Grand Prix ranks, the lady in the bright-blue Bugatti became famed for her flair and bravery. She knew how to work the crowd too, that was the only thing she could carry over from her nights dancing in Paris. Nice was a regular competitor for the next six years, taking on the likes of Tazio Nuvolari – arguably the greatest racer that ever lived. This was an age where stamina and bravery were at a premium, something Hellé had in abundance. It was a time before barriers, seat-belts or even helmets worthy of the name, today a roller-skater would be better protected than she was. Hellé competed in many races that claimed the lives of her competitors, but she was as committed as ever to racing despite the horrors she saw.
After what had seemed a charmed life so far, Hellé’s story was to take a harrowing turn while racing in Brazil in 1936. Running in a superb second place, Nice’s Alfa Romeo crashed into a packed and unprotected grandstand, killing five and injuring many more. She was flung from the car and hit a soldier, taking his life but ultimately this is what saved hers. She was in a coma for three days before making a full recovery, physically at least. In Brazil she was a hero, inspiring a trend of naming children Helenice in her honour.
For 1937 she was still trying to get back behind the wheel, amusing herself while she waited for a Grand Prix seat by breaking ten endurance records that still stand to this day. Until the outbreak of war Hellé went rallying, her good friend Jean Bugatti having laid down his life in one of his own cars by this time.
After spending the war years on the French coast, she attempted to pick up where she left off by going rallying once more. At a party to commemorate the return of international motorsport after the dark days of the war, Ms Nice met up with some of her old rivals for a party. It was at this gathering that Louis Chiron, multiple Grand Prix winning Monegasque, ended the career of the first female racing star. Chiron didn’t stop the Bugatti Queen on the track, it was words that he used to bring this courageous upstart back down to earth.
He accused Nice of being a Gestapo agent, despite her denials and no proof ever being found his rant put sponsors and teams off employing Nice. Chiron himself drove for the Nazi-affiliated Mercedes-Benz team, unlike others his Jewish upbringing didn’t stop him from joining the Silver Arrows squad.
Hellé Nice’s career had survived a deadly crash, but it couldn’t withstand the lies of this man. She never raced again, living out her life under an assumed identity to hide herself from these damaging allegations, growing apart from her family and losing all her friends. She spent her final days in a rat-infested apartment, those living around her having no idea of the glamorous life she had once led. The modern Grand Prix world would barely notice nor mark her passing in 1984.
Hellé Nice was the first woman to taste racing fame, sadly she was not the last to suffer from cruelty and culture-clashes outside the car. Here is a link to a well written and researched book on the first lady of racing if you want to read a lot more.