Elika Junkov: Conqueror Of The Green Hell, And Million Dollar Hypercars
If you follow the Internet, you’ve probably saw a news story about Bugatti offering yet another special edition of the Veyron to help them get rid of remaining stock. This time, the Veyron Vitesse comes with special paint and named after someone called “Elisabeth Junek”. And while Veyron special editions are pretty boring stuff, the lady in question is a true heroine, albeit one you’ve likely never heard of. And since she was one of my country’s greatest motoring legends, I feel obliged to tell Best&Brightest more about her.
Born Alžběta Pospíšilová, she met a young banker, Vincenc Junek, in late her teens. They did what young people do – fell in love – and what followed after that in early 20th century. They got married. Besides taking her husband’s surname, she changed her first name to “Eliška” to mimic (based on English/French/German version of her first name, Elisabeth). And yes, by acquiring a husband’s name “Junek”, she became “Junková” (as is the custom in the Czech language). So, while certain automotive blogging establishments say that she was “also known” as Eliška Junková, it’s the other way around.
Spurred by her husband’s love of automobiles, Eliška started taking secret driving lessons and became one of the first woman in the country with a driving license. In those days, Czechoslovakia was modern, industrial and fairly rich country. And Vincenc, or “Čeněk”, as he was known, a succesful banker by this time, was able to afford the fine automobiles produced by Ettore Bugatti.
Even for just driving their Bugatti T30 on daily basis, Eliška would be quite a badass. But she wasn’t content with that. Her husband was slowly achieving success not only in banking, but also in amateur racing, and she was travelling with him, to serve as his co-driver/mechanic. Which makes her badass, times two.
This lasted up to the moment when Čeněk they acquired a second Bugatti, a new T35 model, and let Eliška drive the T30 in the Lochotín-Třemošná touring car race. Which she won. Of course, this being 1924, most men considered it nothing more than a sheer luck. Until she won again. And again.
The next year, she attended the Zbraslav-Jíloviště race with the T30, while her husband used the more powerful, more modern T35. Today, we can only imagine what a man in early 1920s was thinking when he found out that his own wife, driving the slower of the two family cars, has beaten him and everyone else in the race, to become first woman ever to win an internationally sanctioned race.
Still not enough? In 1927, Eliška Junková went to the famed “green hell”, the Nürburgring racing circuit, to race in the Germany Grand Prix – and won it (in the 3-litre class) as well. To this day, she is the only woman to win a class Grand Prix race.
In 1927 and 1928, Junková also ran in one of the most famous and harshest races of its time – the Targa Florio road race in Sicily. For the first time ever, her Bugatti let her down and steering malfunction forced her to drop out of the race near its end. This grueling race consisted on 5 laps, about 70 miles each, on tight, winding Sicilian roads.
With just 100 horsepower and totally manual controls, Eliška Junková was so small that she had to sit on a pillow to see out of the car, with specially lengthened pedals adapted to her short stature. This forced her to adopt driving techniques unusual for the time – while others were forcing the cars into the turns, skiding wildly, Mrs. Junková didn’t have enough strength to do that, so she chose a much more sophisticated approach, with a cleaner, more precise line. To achieve that, she also became one of the first racers to walk the course before the race itself, noting it’s profile and ideal line through turns.
At 1928 Targa Florio, she was set to win – even being in the lead for part of the race – but more technical problems left her on the 4th place in the end. Still, this meant she came to the finish line in front of legends like Tazio Nuvolari.
We can only speculate how her racing career would continue in the following years, had it not been cut short by a tragedy. At the 1928 Nürburgring Grand Prix, Eliška and Čeněk took turns driving their Bugatti. The accident happened shortly after Mrs. Junková vacated the place behind the wheel for her husband. Vincenc Čeněk lost control of his car on a soft asphalt, went off the track, rolled his car and hit a rock with his head, dying instantly. Devastated, Eliška Junková sold off all her racing cars and turned to her other passion, travelling.
But Bugattis played a role in her life even after that. She went to the Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), as she always wanted, equipped with a brand new Bugatti touring car, provided by Ettore Bugatti himself. She explored the possibilities of exporting Bugatti automobiles to the Ceylon and India. After her return, she worked for Baťa, world-famous shoe manufacturer.
After the World War II and the Communist coup in 1948, she was deemed “too bourgeois”, and was barred from travelling abroad, with a single exception of travelling to the Targa Florio memorial drive in 1966. But she was lucky enough to live through the end of the Communist regime in 1989, even attending a Bugatti reunion in United States that same year. She died peacefully in 1994, at the age of 94 years.
One has to wonder what she would think about the Veyron Vitesse, which is about to bear her name? Would she love the fact that it has more than ten times the power of ther Bugattis? Or would she consider it too fancy and too distant from “real driving”? And what would happen had she not ended her career in 1928? Would there be an “Elisabeth Junek” Veyron much sooner?
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What a story, thanks for sharing.
I believe that Caracciola won the 1927 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, winning overall in the over five liter sports car class. I believe that she actually placed fourth overall (as recorded here, if you scroll down http://www.racingsportscars.com/make/results/Bugatti.html). The victory was that she won her 3.0 liter class (as recorded here in http://www.racingsportscars.com/driver/archive/Eli%C5%A1ka-Junkov%C3%A1-CS.html), which is fantastic, but not an overall Grand Prix win. As this Czech source also points out, it was a class victory http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=auto&tl=en&js=n&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&u=http%3A%2F%2Ff1news.autoroad.cz%2Fdalsi%2F40090-nurburgring-zelene-peklo-2-3%2F&act=url but one that's still extremely impressive, given that she started in 27th.