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NOVEMBER 19, 2000

The famous Grand Prix car that killed twice...


Eliska Junkova

There are not many countries which can claim that their most famous racing driver was a woman but in the case of Czechoslovakia there is no doubt. Eliska Junkova - who was known in the West as Elizabeth Junek - was probably the greatest woman racer there has ever been.

Born in 1900, in the Hana region of Moravia, which was a province of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Eliska was the eldest of four children and at 16 she met her future husband Cenek Junkova who was working in a bank, having been invalided out of the army after being shot in the hand early in the war. When the war ended a new republic called Czechoslovakia was formed, and stability returned, the pair were married. He was sufficiently wealthy to be able to afford to buy racing cars and the two began competing in local events in 1921 initially with locally-built cars and then with a Mercedes. He drove and she acted as his riding mechanic. At the end of 1922 they acquired one of the Bugatti Type 30s which had been raced in the Grand Prix de l'Automobile Club de France at Strasbourg and began to compete with it in Czechoslavakian events in 1923. Because of his hand injury, Cenek had trouble changing gears and so Eliska took over that job and the pair won the race. As a reward he gave her the Bugatti and she began racing herself.

Cenek bought a new Type 35 (another former factory racing car) after the 1924 Grand Prix de l'Automobile Club de France and the couple added a second Type 35 in July 1925 so that they could race in similar machinery. By 1926 Eliska had decided that she would like to try international competition and she took part in the Klausen hillclimb in Switzerland and finished second in her class. This convinced her to try for the toughest race of them all - The Targa Florio. She spent nearly a month in Sicily before the event with her husband, carefully noting the 1500 corners of the 67 mile Madonie circuit. The men mocked her because the Targa was a race which required great physical strength but when it came to the race she was able to use her knowledge of the circuit to run in fourth place until her steering failed and she crashed into a ditch, only narrowly avoiding going off a cliff. She was not hurt but soon afterwards she won the two-liter class of the sports car German GP at the Nurburgring and broke several ribs when she was embraced by the burly German Otto Merz, the overall winner. Legend has it that the band did not know the Czech national anthem and so played a piece by Smetana instead.

In April 1928 she acquired a new Bugatti Type 35B - chassis number 4868 - and took it to Sicily to challenge for the Targa Florio once again. Most of the top names in racing were present, including several factory teams. The cars started at two minutes intervals and timing was done by adding up the lap times. At the end of the first lap Eliska was fourth behind Louis Chiron (factory Bugatti), Giuseppe Campari (factory Alfa Romeo) and Alberto Divo (factory Bugatti). At the end of the second there was consternation because she was leading the event. It was (and remains) the only occasion when a woman has led a major event against all the top names of an era.

In the course of the third lap she actually overtook Divo on the road, having made up the two minute gap between them but Campari retook the overall lead and by the end of the fourth lap Campari had built lead over a minute. On the fifth and final lap both Campari and Junkova ran into trouble and victory went to Divo. She ended the race in fifth place.

On July 15 Eliska and Cenek shared the car in the German GP at the Nurburgring. She had just switched places with her husband when he went off the road at Breidscheid and hit his head on a rock which used to be at the corner. He was killed instantly. The car was almost undamaged in the accident. In her grief, Eliska decided to quit competition. The car was repaired and sold to another Czech driver named Josef Horak and in September 29 on the Ecce Homo hillclimb he crashed into a tree and was hurled to his death from the rolling car.

Eliska Junkova never raced again but she kept in contact with Ettore Bugatti until his death in 1947. With Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain she was largely forgotten by the motor racing world but in the mid-1980s reappeared at the Brno Grand Prix to watch the European Touring Car Championship racers in action.