Mark Glendenning, Australia
Things I Love About Motorsport, Part 42: The Footnotes.
I don't know why I love footnotes so much. A lot of people I know just let them whoosh by without a moment's thought, but I have to read every single one. (It's probably a hangover from studying history at uni).
Motor racing has a deliciously complex past lives, manufacturers, races, tracks and careers weave in and out of each other like mopeds on an Italian street, and are further tangled when outside forces like politics come into the mix. It's the type of stuff that takes a lifetime to really get your head around (which is why nobody has really done it) and it's also a happy hunting ground for footnote freaks like me. There are tangents everywhere.
Sometimes, these footnotes take on a life of their own, and on rare occasions they can even turn into books books like The Bugatti Queen.
Helene Delangle, known to the pre-war French public as Helle Nice, is really a footnote - no more than a dot on the landscape of motorsport history, but that doesn't mean that she doesn't come armed with a great story. It seems to have largely slipped under the radar of the racing history community and wound up in the lap of Miranda Seymour, a novelist with virtually no racing knowledge but who is savvy enough to know when a good yarn has fallen into her lap.
Helle sounds like she was quite a character a dancer, occasional stripper/model, socialite, wannabe actress, and complete racing nut. Her career climaxed when she reached an agreement of sorts with Bugatti (a deal that seems to have worked rather more in Ettore's favour than in hers), and she went on set an assortment of land-speed records at a time when such things were all the rage.
Her career came precariously close to ending when she was involved in a fatal accident at Sao Paulo, and was killed stone dead when she was on the receiving end of accusations from Louis Chiron of being a Nazi collaborator. Nice threatened legal action to have her name cleared, but records from the period are incomplete and it is unclear as to what the outcome may have been. But the particulars are irrelevant, because the one irrefutable fact is that Nice never raced again.
Seymour has spent a lot of energy chasing what seemed to be almost completely cold trails in her efforts to reconstruct Helle's story, and the amount of material that she has managed to unearth is pretty spectacular.
She has acquired and reproduced a good range of photos, and adds further life to the story by reproducing random documents and souvenirs of Helle's life throughout the book. These kinds of things are always effective at helping to imbue some life into a sepia-toned character from history, and this book is no exception.
Inevitably though, there are holes in the story where Seymour's detective work has reached a dead end. It is here that the author puts on her novelist hat and makes an educated, but still dramatised, attempt to reconstruct what may have happened. The interweaving of history with fiction might make a few people a little wary, but on the whole it is easy to distinguish between the two, and the author does employ footnotes to help clarify things even further.
Using fictionalised scenarios is not ideal, but in this case there seems to have been little alternative, and Seymour has made a point of ensuring that it does not compromise the integrity of the rest of the book. It is unfortunate, though, that some of the biggest holes in the story come during the most interesting episodes. There is very little concrete information about how Nice spent the war, and other appealing chapters such as her time in the States also have a few patches.
This can't be helped, but there were a few other areas that could have been tightened up, not least the chapter headings, which for some reason do not correspond with those in the footnotes and thus make looking anything up a bit tricky.
In the grand scheme of things though, such inconveniences are a small price to pay for what is otherwise an entertaining account of a life that has previously been buried deep in the archives of conventional motorsport history. It might not be for everyone ... but at the same time, it has attracted the attention of more non-motorsport fans who have seen me reading it than any other book that I can remember.
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Autosport-Atlas was saddened to hear of the recent passing of noted motorsport writer and historian Chris Nixon. Nixon specialised primarily in the period between the 1930s and 1950s, and books such as 'Racing The Silver Arrows', 'Mon Ami Mate' and 'Rosemeyer!' almost single-handedly helped to create a new generation of racing history enthusiasts.
His more recent output came via limited production runs published by Transport-Bookman, with his last offering, 'Kings of the Nurburgring', reaching the shelves just before his death. Nixon's contribution to historical motorsport literature is almost impossible to measure, but the huge volume of work and research that he has inspired others to undertake will stand as a long and fitting tribute.