[ Read an excerpt from “Faster.” ]
Like many of the cars that race through it, “Faster” adheres to a formula and keeps a brisk pace. After early successes, Dreyfus and Caracciolla both suffer serious crashes, and Schell trades rally-driving for team-building. Other racers, friends and rivals, die on the tracks. Hitler, looking to boost Germany’s morale and prime its war machine, pumps money into the auto industry, whose burnished-aluminum marvels, the so-called Silver Arrows, stun Europe and transform the sport.
Caracciola fights back from his injuries, and the Reich rallies around him, but Dreyfus finds himself on the outs — a Frenchman in a sport dominated by Italian and German teams less and less hospitable to non-natives, especially those with famously Jewish last names. Schell recruits Dreyfus to her fledgling team and puts him behind the wheel of its new car, the Delahaye 145. Germany annexes Austria, and Dreyfus, sensing the moment, drives the Delahaye to a shocking upset of Caracciola and Mercedes in the opening race of the 1938 season.
If the outline feels familiar, the story itself is fresh, and told in vivid detail. Bascomb’s research — in racing periodicals in several languages and archival collections on multiple continents — is to be applauded. He describes the twists and turns of the 1930s Grand Prix races as if he’d driven the courses himself. And he organizes his material thoughtfully. Rather than introduce Dreyfus with an account of his first Grand Prix win, in Monaco in 1930, Bascomb describes his strong showing in a less renowned but more symbolically charged race, the climb at La Turbie in 1926: From the moment we meet our hero, he’s fighting an uphill battle.
Though Bascomb focuses on the Grand Prix, he takes in all sorts of competitions, from rallies and climbs to trials, which are at least as exciting to read about as the more famous races. And there are some worthwhile detours — into the early history of automotive manufacturing, the fascist obsession with fast cars and Hitler’s plans to motorize Germany’s civilians as well as its military. These digressions are absorbing but all too brief, as Bascomb hurries to the next starting line. By my rough count, the book features close to 50 race scenes and summaries. For me, this was too much — I wished that “Faster” were slower — but your mileage may vary.