Elizabeth Junek

Elizabeth Junek

16/11/1900 - 5/1/1994

Regarded as one of the greatest female drivers in Grand Prix motor racing history. However with communist rule in Czechoslovakia she was largely forgotten by the motor racing world until recently. She nearly won the 1928 Targa Florio in her Type 35B Bugatti but rocks mysteriously appeared in front of her on the second lap.

Born Alzbeta Pospíailová, Junek is regarded as one of the greatest female drivers in Grand Prix motor racing history. She used the name Eliska Junkova and was from the town of Olomouc in Moravia.

Nicknamed "smisek" for her ever-present smile, she dreamt of traveling the world and loved to study foreign languages. She got a job in the Olomouc bank and it was there that she met Vincenc "Cenek" Junek, an ambitious young man who had been discharged from the army after being shot in the hand.

Vincenc loved cars and racing and in 1922 he won the Zbraslav-Jiloviste hill climb. He also married Eliska that year. They started racing together in local events but because of his wartime injury, Cenek had trouble shifting gears and so Eliska, wo started as his riding mechanic, took over the driving duties.

That year they bought a Mercedes and a Bugatti Type 30 which had been raced in the Grand Prix de France at Strasbourg. Cenek gave the Bugatti to his wife in 1923.

As Eliska gained fame throughout Europe, her name was anglicised to Elizabeth and by 1926 was good enough to compete in races around Europe against the best male drivers of the time.

In 1926, she competed in the Targa Florio in Sicily, a race where physical strength was a necessity due to the nature of the very rough and often muddy course. Although her vehicle crashed and she was out of the race, her performance earned her a great deal of respect. Shortly thereafter, she won the two-liter sports car class at Nürburgring, Germany, making her the only woman in history to have ever won a Grand Prix race.

With her sights firmly set on winning the 1928 Targa Florio, she acquired a new Bugatti Type 35B to enable her to be on an equal footing with the top male drivers who would be competing. At the end of the first lap Junek was fourth behind the famous Louis Chiron in his factory sponsored Bugatti, but on the second lap she took the lead.

On the final lap she ran into trouble when two rocks appeared suddenly in the middle of the road. Two rocks that had not been there on the previous lap. It has long been suspected that these had been planted. She ended up fifth but still beat 25 other top drivers including the likes of Luigi Fagioli, René Dreyfus, Ernesto Maserati and Tazio Nuvolari.

Back at Nürburgring in July, she shared the driving with her husband and had just changed places with him when he went off course and was killed instantly.

Devastated, she gave up racing and sold her vehicles. With communist rule in Czechoslovakia she was largely forgotten by the motor racing world. Like Hellé Nice, her great female counterpart from France, only recently has Junková's pioneering effort been given the recognition it deserves.

From 1948 to 1964 the Communist authorities, disapproving of her high-flying bourgeois lifestyle, refused to allow her to travel abroad. She lived well into her nineties, long enough for the iron curtain to fall and at the age of 91 and against the advice of her doctor, she attended a Bugatti reunion in the United States, as the guest of honor.

She was the first woman to win a Grand Prix event.

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