A dangerous game

As if being a pre-war grand prix driver wasn’t hazardous enough, many became embroiled in clandestine wartime activities. Heroes all, both on and off the track

In recent days I have read two exceptional books, which on the face of it could hardly be more disparate, yet in some respects have much in common. One, Driving With The Devil, is to do with NASCAR, while the other, The Grand Prix Saboteurs, as its title suggests, concerns itself with a world more familiar to Motor Sport readers.

As Juan Pablo Montoya is discovering, these two forms of motor racing have little in common, save the requirement to get to the finishing line before anyone else. But these books are similar in terms of time – essentially the 1940s – and also in the sense that neither is a racing book, as such.

Driving With The Devil tells the story of how NASCAR began, of how a bunch of bootleggers – necessarily expert drivers, in cars greatly souped up to compensate for the weight of gallons of moonshine as they sought to out-run federal agents – began to race. In the beginning, they ran around fields, until an oval track began to emerge, and then they raced on it.

Bill France – while emphatically not a bootlegger – was himself a driver in the 1940s and, increasingly, as he concentrated more on race promotion, became the czar of stock car racing. However he was not, as is often believed, the sole founder of NASCAR. So determined was the book’s author, Neal Thompson, to do justice to his subject, that he left his job on the Baltimore Sun and moved to North Carolina, the better to investigate and research. A review on the jacket describes it as “A tale that sanitised, corporate NASCAR would rather forget.” Could there be a sharper hook?

I have never met Thompson, but Joe Saward, the author of The Grand Prix Saboteurs, is an old friend. It was in the late 1980s that he first became intrigued, then obsessed, by the wartime activities of two grand prix drivers: William Grover (who as W Williams won the first Monaco GP in 1929) and Robert Benoist, who would have been world champion in 1927, had the title existed, and retired from racing 10 years later after sharing the winning Bugatti at Le Mans with Jean-Pierre Wimille, another who figures strongly in this tale.

Over time Saward came in for good-natured stick as we began seriously to doubt that his book would ever appear. It was clear that he was spending lots of time on the project, tracking down folk whose world had touched Grover and Benoist, including some who had worked with them in the SOE (Special Operations Executive), but it seemed endless.

Saward has always had a passion for digging, for unearthing facts that some would prefer to remain buried, and it has served him well. Gradually he began to produce parts of the manuscript and, as I read them over time, my appetite was whetted for the book proper. If it ever saw the light of day…

As Saward went along, piecing together an extraordinarily complex puzzle, he felt sure he was fundamentally on the right track, but if there were those who would talk to him, so there were some who refused – and one or two, as he says, who actively sought to hinder his research. It wasn’t until 2003, when the British government released the final secret SOE documents, that Saward was able to confirm his conclusions had been on the mark.

Now the work is done and the book – which has been glowingly reviewed – will stand as a tribute to two astonishingly brave men. It was long known that Grover and Benoist had worked in Intelligence during the war, and that they had been tortured and ultimately executed by the Germans, but few details of their activities were known. Grover has remained particularly enigmatic.

Saward’s book offers far more information about him and the life he led than anything previously published. Countless words have been written about Richard Seaman and justifiably so, but whereas Seaman won only one grande epreuve, Grover won four. We tend to think of Seaman as Britain’s only pre-war grand prix driver, perhaps because Grover, born of Anglo-French parents, grew up in France and lived his life there – although he considered himself resolutely English.

As WWII began, Grover, now 36, had retired from racing and was living the high life, he and his beautiful French wife dividing time between an apartment in Paris and a villa in Beaulieu on the Côte d’Azur. For many in his situation, the war would have been an inconvenience, but something that could have been sidestepped. Grover, though, lost no time enlisting in the British Army and soon came to the attention of the SOE.

Benoist, 44 at the outbreak of war, could similarly have waited quietly for hostilities to cease. He had been a youthful pilot in WWI, and could be said to have done his bit, but he was incensed by Germany’s occupation of his country and was another willing SOE recruit.

Friendly rivals in their racing days, Grover and Benoist were now united in a common cause and some of the hair-raising tales in Saward’s book leave you lost in admiration for their courage. Two utterly decent and brave men, who fought because they chose to and suffered appallingly for it.

Their contemporary René Dreyfus was another who could have avoided wartime action, but did not. He joined the French Army in 1939, but received permission to drive a Maserati in the 1940 Indianapolis 500. It was while he was on that side of the water that France fell. With no easy way back Dreyfus remained in America, but contrived to join the US Army in 1942 and thereafter served in North Africa and Italy.

The great majority of 1930s grand prix drivers were German and Italian, and as war looked ever more inevitable the Nazi presence in the sport became increasingly oppressive.

Recently I was dismayed to read of Bernd Rosemeyer, in a book published in America, that he was “An ardent Nazi and poster-child for the so-called Aryan super-race.” It was undeniable that Rosemeyer and his wife, the aviatrix Elly Beinhorn, personified success, and as such were of great propaganda value to Hitler’s regime, but in fact Rosemeyer had a profound distaste for National Socialism. After the 1937 German GP, the victorious Rudolf Caracciola was presented with a trophy depicting the Goddess of Speed, and when Adolf Hühnlein (Hitler’s man at the races) turned his back, Bernd showed his contempt by sticking his cigarette between the goddess’s lips! Hardly the act of an ardent Nazi.

“Rosemeyer was not a Nazi sympathiser,” Dreyfus told me, “and neither was Caracciola, who saw what was coming and moved to Switzerland. But they all had to give the Nazi salute – even Dick Seaman when he won at the Nürburgring. I don’t know any of the drivers who was genuinely a Nazi sympathiser – with the possible exception of [Manfred] von Brauchitsch. His arm was always very straight when he saluted – but he didn’t have to do it often, because he didn’t win very much…

“Von Brauchitsch was a complete snob, a member of the Prussian aristocracy. He was extremely brave in a racing car, but I don’t think he had much taste for fighting. After the war he went off to East Germany. They made him Minister of Sport or whatever and he lived in great splendour. 

“They were sad times, you know. [Hans] Stuck was not a Nazi – but he divorced his wife because she was half-Jewish. She had been a great skiing champion, a lovely woman altogether…”

Left unsaid was that Dreyfus’s first wife, a French woman, had divorced him for exactly the same reason. Sad times indeed, but in many ways inspiring too, as The Grand Prix Saboteurs amply reveals.