Eliška Junková, first woman to win Grand Prix, died 30 years ago

Eliška Junková at the Targa Florio race in 1928

Olomouc-born Eliška Junková is regarded as one of the most extraordinary drivers in Grand Prix motor racing history. Although her career was cut short by the tragic death of her husband, a fellow racer, she achieved a remarkable amount in only five years, winning several events and becoming the first woman to ever compete in the infamous Targa Florio, beating 25 other top drivers in the process.

Born Alžběta Pospíšilová to a locksmith as the sixth of eight children, Junková was nicknamed “smíšek” at an early age for her ever-present smile. She had a taste for adventure and in her youth already developed a desire to travel the world, which led her to learn languages and subsequently get a job at a bank at the age of 16.

Her job not only allowed her to travel abroad to France and Gibraltar, but also to meet Čeněk Junek, the man who would later become her husband and introduce her to the world of competitive motor racing. Čeněk had a passion for the high-performance automobiles of the day, and began competing in races in the early 1920s, bringing Eliška, whom he had married in 1922, along with him.

Eliška Junková at the Zbraslav-Jíloviště race in 1927 | Photo: e-Sbírky,  Národní muzeum,  CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 DEED

At first Eliška took an interest in cars because of her husband, allegedly saying, "If he is going to be the love of my life, then I’d better learn to love these damned engines." But it apparently didn’t take long before she too fell in love with sports cars, especially the now-defunct Bugatti brand.

She took part in her first professional race in 1923, and soon was competing at the level of the top men in the field – and giving them a run for their money. Motorsports commentator and writer Martin Straka says that Junková was impressive not only because of her talent, but also her bravery and ambition.

Eliška Junková at the Targa Florio race in 1928 | Photo: e-Sbírky,  Národní muzeum,  CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 DEED

“She was an exceptional woman, and an exceptional racer. Her talent was undoubtable, but talent can be inherited and it was her other characteristics – her courage, her willpower – the courage to stand up and compete, at that time, against men, in some of the hardest races in the world, that contributed to her success. Courage, also, to withstand pressure from other women, which can’t have been easy, when they asked her what she was doing messing around with boys and cars.”

She soon became the fastest woman in the world, with the real turning point in her career coming in 1926, when she won the international Zbraslav–Jíloviště race, making her the first woman in the world to win a Grand Prix event. This catapulted her to fame and she became known all over Europe, gaining the nickname “Queen of the Steering Wheel”. Her name was anglicised in the foreign press as Elisabeth Junek, which is how she became known in the English-speaking world.

Before the Zbraslav-Jíloviště race in 1927,  racers Pokorná,  Einsiedel,  Kovaříková and Junková | Photo: e-Sbírky,  Národní muzeum,  CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 DEED

This was followed by a string of other successes in Czechoslovakia, Germany and France in 1926 and 1927. But her greatest success is usually considered to be a race where she didn’t actually place first – the incredibly challenging and demanding Targa Florio in Sicily, in 1928. She had attempted it the year before, but her steering gear had broken early in the race, throwing her off the road. Fortunately, she suffered no injuries, and was able to return the following year and try again. Martin Straka says she describes her preparation for the race in great detail in her autobiography, "My memory is Bugatti".

“She describes how Čeněk instructed her to train for the long and difficult course through the mountains on the island of Sicily – when she should have a glass of milk, when she should go to bed, when she should get up. A lot of the racers were portly gentlemen and they didn’t pay attention to things like diet and training at all – they just sat behind the wheel and went. So Eliška and Čeněk were also progressive in that sense.”

Unfortunately, despite a strong start, she missed out on a top three position due to a tyre puncture in the second half of the final lap, but still finished in a respectable fifth place, just under nine minutes behind the winner. Moreover, she beat 25 other top male racers doing it, on what was regarded as one of the hardest circuits in the world at the time.

Eliška Junková | Photo: Czech Television

Tragically, only two months later she lost her husband to a head injury sustained after he was thrown from his car in the German Grand Prix. Devastated, Junková gave up racing and retired after only five years of competing professionally. However, she continued to work in the field as an organiser and interpreter, and later managed Baťa’s sales department for passenger car tyres.

She adopted her brother’s orphaned son in 1940, and remarried after the Second World War, this time to motoring journalist Ladislav Khás. She lived to the grand age of 93, before passing away on 5 January, 1994.

Authors: Anna Fodor , Daniel Ordóñez
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