Eliška Junková, born in 1900 in the city of Olomouc in what is today known as the Czech Republic, was the first woman ever to win a Grand Prix motor race. She was famously known as the “Queen of the Steering Wheel” as she competed in the 1920s against Europe’s top male drivers, an unconceivable accomplishment at that time.
As WWI ended in 1918, Czechoslovakia emerged from the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a newly created sovereign state in the heart of Europe. Its democratically elected President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, who took his American wife’s last name Garrigue, led its people into a prosperous and progressive era. Czechoslovakia even granted women’s suffrage before the United States! The 1920s was known as being the “machine age” and this modern mechanical progress was reflected in Czechoslovakia, which was one of the world's ten most industrialized states in the interwar period.
Junková blossomed in this time of change. The sixth of eight children, she was all smiles, earning the nickname “giggles.” She dreamt of traveling the world and learned German, English, and French. At 16, she began working as a correspondent at a bank, a branch that was managed by her future husband Čeněk Junek. When Junek was sent to start another branch, she followed to him to Brno. There, Junková took music lessons from the famous Czech composer Leoš Janáček! However, she soon followed Junek again to Prague and then went alone to France to refine her language skills.
Meanwhile, Junek had done quite well for himself in the banking business and developed a passion for automobiles as well as auto racing. When the pair reunited, Junková noted, “If he is going to be the love of my life, then I better learn to love these damned engines.” In Prague, she took driving courses in secret and got her driver's license, becoming one of the first women in Czechoslovakia to obtain one. Junek kicked off his racing career and won the Zbraslav-Jíloviště uphill race in 1922. The couple finally married that same year. Soon, the pair began racing as a husband-wife team as Junek had troubles shifting gears due to a hand injury from WWI. Junek bought a Bugatti Type 30 for his beloved wife, which would become her signature car.
Junková competed in her first race in 1924 and won. She was short in stature but that didn’t impede her as she put pillows in her seat. She quickly rose to fame, racing her trademark Bugatti across Europe’s most difficult courses. Her greatest successes were 1st place in the Zbraslav-Jíloviště hillclimb (1926), 2nd place in the under-2-litre sports car class Klausenpass hillclimb (1926), 1st place in the Coupé des Dames (1927), and 1st place for lady drivers in the Grand Prix of Montlhéry (1927). When she won 1st place in the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring (1927), she became the first woman to ever win such a race. In the excitement, her competitor, Otto Merz, congratulated her with a big hug, leaving her small frame with two broken ribs! Her pioneering legacy was preserved in the classic jazz composition "Bugatti Step” by famous Czech composer Jaroslav Ježek.
In 1928, Junková set her sights on the most challenging race in the world at that time, the Targa Florio, with over 1300 corners per lap. Resolved to win, she became one of the first drivers to walk the 67-mile course and meticulously study every turn. She even traveled to Sicily a whole month before the 5-lap race to prepare and commit the track to memory! On race day, she held in second place for the 3rd and 4th lap; however, her car overheated and a tire punctured, causing her to come in 5th place. As her competitor René Albert Dreyfus said, “Her tenacity and determination were remarkable... She scared the wits out of other drivers as it was unthinkable for a woman to beat a man. Nobody who was in that Targa, ever forgot that formidable lady.”
Upon her return to Prague, people would cheer when she drove down the streets. Two months later, the racing couple entered the German Grand Prix. On the 5th lap, Čeněk Junek switched as the driver with his wife. Trying to make up for lost time due to a tire change, he lost control of the car going around a corner, crashing. He was thrown out of the car and his head hit a rock. He was not wearing a helmet, which didn’t arrive on time for the race. He tragically died. Devastated, Junková gave up racing and sold all her cars. She decided to travel again instead. Her friend, Ettore Bugatti, sent her with a brand new car to Sri Lanka (British Ceylon back then) to seek out potential business ventures.
Returning back to her native Czech lands, Junková continued to work with her love of cars. In the 1930s, she collaborated with the prestigious Czech company Baťa on tire development. She joined the Czechoslovak Automobile Club for Moravia and Silesia, built a circuit and organized races. She remained an ambassador for Bugatti. After WWII, Junková married sports and motoring journalist Ladislav Khás. However, with the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia in 1948, Junková was banned from traveling abroad as her lifestyle was deemed “bourgeois.” She became a mostly forgotten icon in the West.
Still, a legend never dies. Upon the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of Communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, Junková, at the age of 89 and against the advice of her doctor, traveled to the United States to attend a Bugatti reunion as the guest of honor. It was a great tribute to the woman who, in her 5 year racing career, went up against the world’s best drivers, revolutionized racing preparation, and became the first woman to win a Grand Prix. She died peacefully at the age of 93 in 1994. Twenty years later, Bugatti honored her feats with a special-edition Veyron in its "Légendes de Bugatti" series.
Junková published her recollections and triumphs in her autobiography, Má Vzpomínka Je Bugatti (My Memory is Bugatti). She wrote, "I proved that a woman can work her way up to the same level as the best of men. We women sometimes tend to blame our failures on nature. It is far more productive to be less angry and more hardworking. Some handicaps can easily be overcome." Her memory is an inspiration to all women out there.