Saturday, December 26, 2009

Lucy O'Reilly

Nazi Germany's sporting reversals have become the stuff of legend, Jesse Owens' slap in the face for Aryan supremacy at the Berlin Olympics of 1936 and Joe Louis' first round stoppage of Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in 1938.

In the field of motor sport such reverses were few and far between, as Mercedes and Auto Union took Grand Prix racing to a new level. Of course there was Nuvolari's 1935 victory in an Alfa Romeo at the German Grand Prix, of all places - but that could be seen as a victory for Adolf's pal Mussolini. No, the victory of a privately entered Delahaye over Caracciola's works Mercedes in the Pau Grand Prix of 1938 must have been a singular blow to Nazi pride, especially given the fact that the French car was piloted by a Jew called Dreyfus.

The Delahaye was run by the Ecurie Bleue, a racing team set up by French-American heiress Lucy O'Reilly. In one of those examples where misinformation gets repeated, you are likely to read that Lucy was the Dublin born daughter of an American millionaire, who, having met her husband Laury Schell while on the grand tour, moved to France where she became an amateur rallyist and racing driver of some note. Infact Lucy was born at Brunoy, near Paris on 26th October 1896, the daughter of a French mother and, yes, an American millionaire father. The truth is that when Lucy first visited the United States during the Great War, she spoke very little English.

Frustrated in her attempts to get French backing for her Delahaye project, Lucy moved her team to Monte Carlo and purchased Maseratis. In 1940 Lucy sent Ecurie Bleue on a daring voyage from war torn Europe to compete in the Indianapolis 500, sailing from Genoa on the ocean liner Conte di Savoia. Despite blowing up one of their cars in practice, drivers Dreyfus and Le Begue shared a creditable tenth place in the race, hampered at every turn by a complete failure to understand the American racing rulebook.

Accompanying Ecurie Bleue on this American adventure was Lucy's son Harry Schell, who continued to race for the team after the war, later becoming one of the leading Grand Prix drivers until his death at Silverstone in 1960. Lucy herself died in 1952.

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