Segrave: Boulogne's bravest

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In 1926 Henry Segrave embarked on his Land Speed Record battle with Malcolm Campbell. His V12 Sunbeam broke Campbell’s record in March at Southport beach, despite a gulley launching him into the air at 150mph. But it was another record attempt at Boulogne’s speed trials in August that really shook him up.

Segrave and the Sunbeam were to attack the 5km road record of 126mph held by J G Parry Thomas, who was also there with his Leyland. To spice things up, the run was upped to 6km and the direction of travel reversed. In the middle of the section were three of the Boulogne circuit’s challenging switchbacks.

Segrave recalled in The Lure of Speed that he did not sleep the night before his run: his fear was about performance, not the track. Gear ratios limited him to 132mph because it was thought that any rise in this speed would send him off the road. He worried that Parry Thomas’ Leyland, geared to do 140mph, had the roadholding to achieve that mark. Segrave decided he would just have to go for it.

The road seemed like a narrow ribbon lined with thousands of faces on each side and the ribbon became narrower and narrower as the speed increased.” Segrave recounted.

“Then came the first of the hills. Up this we shot at over 135mph. The car seemed only to touch the road in spots. I instinctively realised that the only way in which I could force myself into the seat was by wedging my foot against the throttle pedal and pressing myself against the seat.

“Then came the second hill, which was the steepest. Just before reaching the top, the car hit a bad bump in the road and bounced into the offside gutter, along which it ran for about 50 yards, leaving the ground at the crest of the hill and flying into the air, landing about 30 feet further on. It landed, more by luck than judgement, in the same direction it had been travelling.

“In a blur I passed the finish line a hundred yards beyond, and it was only then that I realised I had been thoroughly frightened for the first time in my life in a car. When I got out I could not stand properly for several minutes. I felt dreadfully tired although the whole thing had taken under three minutes.”

Parry Thomas averaged 120-130mph. But Segrave had set a new record of 141.164mph. Later that afternoon, his close friend Captain R B Howey was killed in the Mont Lambert hilIclimb: Segrave had survived his ordeal, but Boulogne’s roads had claimed another victim.

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