Behind the wheel

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016
  • Léon Théry

    I’m a huge motor racing fan, so I was curious to find the grave of a race car driver hidden away in the myriad of elaborate tombstones at the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris. I wasn’t familiar with Léon Théry, a French race driver who I’ve since learned was a hero of early motor racing. He was just 19 years old when he competed in his first race, the 1898 Paris to Amsterdam road race.

    By all accounts Théry was a tactical driver who kept methodical documentation of circuit details, road conditions, tyres, engine reliability, and car performance. He was not the fastest race driver of the time, but nonetheless he was successful because of his ability not to over-drive the car, and nurse it around any problems that would arise on the long road races. Such was his reliability, unusual for the time, he earned the nickname “Le Chronometer.”

    Théry wasn’t a fearless driver, but he believed any driver who feared injury probably shouldn’t get behind the wheel of a race car in the first place. Racing was extremely dangerous back then, and with almost no safety measures at all, many drivers and mechanics were killed in accidents. Mechanics would precariously lean out of the cars as they cornered, so as to counter the risk of rolling the fragile yet fast machines.

    During races spectators would line the streets with almost no crowd control as cars raced through towns and villages. So perilous were the events that in 1903 the Paris to Madrid “Race of Death” was stopped due to the amount of people who were killed and injured both driving and watching the race. After this event racing on open roads was banned in France.

    The young Théry won numerous events, most notably the Gordon Bennett Cup in 1905, then at 27 years old, with his winnings and reputation he retired from racing to concentrate his efforts on building his own race car. That undertaking proved to be immensely expensive and a failure than nearly bankrupted him, forcing him to seek work as chauffeur.

    He came out of retirement to race in the 1908 French Grand Prix for his old team, Brasier. However, he retired on lap 10 with a collapsed wheel.

    His tombstone might lead you to think that Théry went on to enjoy a long and storied career, but sadly that was not to be. The French Grand Prix of 1908 was the last time Théry would sit behind the wheel of a race car. His life was cut short not by an accident on the track, but by the much more common killer at the time, tuberculosis. He died shortly before his 30th birthday.

    One hundred years after his most illustrious victory at the Gordon Bennett race in France, the French postal service issued a stamp and the Paris Mint struck a commemorative medal representing Théry driving his Brasier.

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