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F1: Kate Walker: Rene Dreyfus

Kate Walker looks at the life of Jewish racer Rene Dreyfus who won at Monaco and then headed to the USA during the Second World War
Pre-war French racing driver Rene Dreyfus began driving at the age of nine, having taken an interest in cars as soon as he was old enough to express an interest in anything.

Despite his early automotive start, however, it was not until the age of 19 that the amateur Dreyfus took to the racetrack. It was a remarkable debut, in that he finished first in class. Less impressive is the footnote that he was the only entrant.

The win was a sign of things to come, however, and between 1924 and 1929 the Nice-based Dreyfus tried his hand at a variety of events around the French Riviera, eventually attracting the attention of a Bugatti agent who offered him exhibition drives with the team at the first Monaco Grand Prix - where he won his class and finished fifth overall - the 1929 Targa Florio and the Dieppe and Marne Grands Prix.

But it was the way in which Dreyfus won the 1930 Monaco Grand Prix that really made the racing world sit up and take notice. Aware that beating the works cars would be an uphill battle, Dreyfus arranged for a second fuel tank to be fitted to his Bugatti, gambling that the time saved by not refuelling would be worth the extra weight in the early stages.

It was in the 1930s that Dreyfus' career really took off. He followed up his Monaco victory with overall and class wins at the 1930 Marne Grand Prix, the 1930 Grand Prix d'Esterel Plage, the 1931 Grand Prix de Brignoles, the 1934 Belgian Grand Prix, the 1935 Marne Grand Prix, the 1935 Dieppe Grand Prix, the 1937 Tripoli Grand Prix, the 1938 Cork Grand Prix, and the 1938 Pau Grand Prix.

By the late 1930s, Europe had become an increasingly difficult place to be Jewish, although it was not until the successful German invasion of France that Dreyfus' faith put him in any real danger. It did, however, have an impact on both his choice of car and his racing record, as following the influx of government funding in the 1930s, the all-conquering Auto-Union and Mercedes-Benz were not on the lookout for Jewish drivers.

When war broke out in September 1939 Dreyfus enlisted in the French army where he was put to use as a truck driver. But in 1940 he was sent by the French government to the United States, where he was to race for Maserati in the Indy 500. It was a largely unsuccessful weekend, marred by problems in qualifying and Dreyfus and co-driver's lack of understanding of the rules, but the pair somehow finished tenth.

By the time Dreyfus was scheduled to return to France, Paris had fallen to the Germans. Given his status as a high-profile Jew, he was advised by the government to remain in the States. In 1942, shortly after the Americans joined the war, Dreyfus enlisted in the US Army, serving as an interrogator in the Italian campaign.

After the war, Dreyfus settled in the United States, becoming an American citizen. Based in New York, he and brother Maurice - who had been his manager in days on track - opened noted French restaurant Le Gourmet, which soon became a second home for much of the racing world. By the 1950s the brothers were nostalgic for Europe, so sold up and moved to France. They lasted but a year before returning to New York to open Le Chanteclair.

Even when his days as a racer were long since finished, Dreyfus could not get motorsport out of his system. In 1952, he took part in the Le Mans 24 Hour endurance race. In 1953, he added to his endurance racing experience with an attempt at the Sebring 12 Hour race. And at the grand old age of 75, Dreyfus did a driving tour of Europe, taking in all of the scenes of his racing successes.

By Kate Walker

Kate Walker is a senior F1 writer for Crash.net. A member of the F1 travelling circus since 2010, she keeps an eye on the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that makes Formula One a political melodrama.

Tagged as: Rene Dreyfus

Related Pictures

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Rene Dreyfus and Tazio Nuvolari at the 1935 Grand Prix de Pau Pic credit: Agence de presse Meurisse‏ [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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February 13, 2016 6:21 PM

Before world war two will never come again. The transfer of French "Beauty" of what a Grand Prix machine ought to be to the cold German mentality of aircraft design on wheels. "the slug it to them down the straights" approach of winning is everything. I really love the Bugatti and what it stood for. Like the American "Indian Motorcycle" i hoped it would be "the return of the Naitve" but the days when Grand Prix cars use Tonneau covers to boost their speed is over. When I came of age you could still go to the back of "Road and Track" and there would be the "Bugatti" and at an affordable price. it was still the age of the "Gentleman". Like the Tonneau we are all gone from what was "Gallantry."

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