I haven’t been into cars for a super long time, but in 2008 I was given the opportunity to volunteer at the now-defunct Fairfield County Concours d’Elegance. Without much of an eye for what was what, I unfortunately missed the opportunity to check out Mario Andretti’s Lotus in favor of shinier things – Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Bugattis. I had never seen a Bugatti before, and I spent a ton of time checking out the Bugatti Veyron at the show when it arrived. It was just so interesting.
When trying to come up with a list of awesome women in motorsport, the obvious F1 ones come to mind: the historic ones like Lella Lombardi and Divina Gallica, the modern-day ones like Susie Wolff and Maria De Villota. Initially, this series was going to stick to F1 as our podcast does, but F1 is restrictive. There have been so many incredible women who’ve driven in other realms of motorsport, why not open it up a little?
Which brings us back to my Bugatti love, and to this week’s mega woman: Helle Nice. Nice launched a legitimately awesome pre-WWII motorsport campaign out of a career as an exotic dancer and model. She had affairs galore with the rich and famous, and drove Bugattis and Alfa Romeos competitively against the male racing drivers of her time. Literally the only reason you haven’t heard of her is because some jerk accused her of being a Nazi. Sounds pretty ridiculous, right?
Nice was born in a rural village in France in 1900, the daughter of a white postman and a black housewife. She moved to Paris and got her start as a dancer and model. By the age of 26, her income from dancing and modeling was enough that she was able to buy her own house and a yacht. Awesome. Although she’d been racing in amateur series alongside dancing and modeling, a downhill skiing accident and subsequent knee injury ended her dancing career at the age of 28, launching her full-time into racing. She won an all-female grand prix the following year in 1929 at a circuit close to Paris and even set a land-speed record for women in that race. The following year she hopped the pond and began racing in the United States in a Miller-branded car.
In 1931, upon returning to France, she was introduced to Ettiore Bugatti, who decided to add her to his driver lineup. And so, driving a bright blue Bugatti, she began racing in Grands Prix against men. She took on five races in France in 1931 and moved on from there, often beating some of the top male drivers of her time in races across Europe, and taking part in hillclimbs and rallies in addition to Grands Prix. Not only was she extremely quick on track, but she was able to pad her income by doing product endorsements, parlaying her femininity into sponsorship dollars.
That’s all cool and all, but the story of hers that really drew me in was her adventure in 1936, when she flew to Brazil to compete in two Grands Prix, including a race in Sao Paulo. Driving an Alfa Romeo, she was challenging Brazilian champion Manuel de Teffe for the lead of the race when somehow a haybale ended up on the track. She hit the bale going more than 100 MPH and flipped her car into the crowd, killing four people and injuring thirty more. She was thrown from her car and ended up landing on a soldier; he absorbed the impact and died, but while she ended up in a coma for three days, Nice survived the accident somehow. Her survival made her somewhat of a cult hero among Brazilians of the day; women began naming their baby girls Elenice or Helenice as a tribute.
After the crash, she tried to make a comeback into Grand Prix racing in 1937, but couldn’t secure financial backing. So instead of giving up, she and four other women drove for ten days and ten nights at the Yacco endurance trials at the Montlhéry track in France, breaking ten world records in the process. She drove in rally races for the next two years, hoping to re-secure a seat with Bugatti, but in 1939 in the span of a month her friend and sometimes-lover Jean Bugatti died – and World War II started, signaling the end of auto racing in Europe for a few years.
When the war ended, Nice returned to Monaco to take part in the Monte Carlo rally, but at a party organized to celebrate racing’s post-war return, Louis Chiron put a quick end to that. Chiron, a well-known Grand Prix winner beloved in his hometown, accused Nice of being a nazi agent during the war, and that accusation, however unfounded, ruined her racing career. Her sponsors dropped her and her funding subsequently dried up. The accusation was never proven – in fact, Miranda Seymour, who has written a fantastic biography on Nice’s life, even went to Germany to track down official Gestapo records in Berlin – Nice had never done any such thing. However, as a woman fighting against one of Monaco’s favorites, Nice had about an ice cube’s chance in hell of successfully battling against Chiron. Ironically, Chiron had driven for Mercedes-Benz, which, well….definitely didn’t NOT have nazi ties…
Helle Nice’s records and name were pretty much wiped off the face of racing for a very long time, which is an absolute shame since her life was exciting enough to be the stuff of movies. She died friendless and alone in Nice, France, having had to accept charity for much of the last part of her life. In recent years – 2008 – funds were raised to provide a marker for her grave commemorating her success as a racing driver, and the marker was placed in September 2010.
I’ll definitely never think about a Bugatti the same way again, knowing that they gave this awesome woman a chance to drive in some epic races. If only some companies today would do the same…
Nice’s ’27 Bugatti was sold this past summer, and has been restored several times. Read about it here. A foundation in her name, to promote women in motorsport, exists as well; their online home is here.