Wednesday 5th January 1994
Eliška Junková (93) born as Alžběta Pospíšilová and also known as Elizabeth Junek, one of the greatest female drivers in Grand Prix motor racing history, died. However with communist rule in Czechoslovakia she was largely forgotten by the motor racing world until recently. Eliška Junková (also known as Elizabeth Junek) was raised in Olomouc on the outskirts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A passion for world languages drew her to traveling, and she fell in love with racing cars after spotting a Bugatti in Paris circa 1921. She began taking driving lessons in secret and earned her license a year later.
Eventually, she took up with a Czech banker named Cenek Junek, an aspiring professional driver who, because of a wartime injury to his hand, was unable to shift gears. She came on as his riding mechanic, tasked with wrenching and swapping cogs for her husband. It wasn’t long before she won her class at the 1924 Lachotín-Třemošná hill-climb driving a cigar-shaped Bugatti blue Type 30 and championed the sobriquet ‘Queen of the Steering Wheel.’
With riding mechanics banned for the 1925 Grand Prix season, Madame Junek began racing the Bugatti solo and, the following year, took second place at Klaussenpass in Switzerland. While she was physically undersized (something Emilio Materassi and other male drivers ridiculed her for), Junek was diligent and exceptionally cunning. Before the 1927 Targa Florio, she took to the 67-mile route on foot, noting the terrain, envisioning a line, and taking pace notes—the first-ever driver to “walk the course.”
Still, she wrecked out of the ’27 Targa Florio after just two laps. The documented reason was steering malfunction; Junek always maintained that somebody moved a rock into a corner as she was clipping the apex in order to sabotage her run. She endured, though, winning her class at the German Grand Prix later that year and returning to the Targa Florio in 1928, where she started from fourth in her supercharged Bugatti Type 35B. By the second lap, she was leading the race.At one point, Junek held multiple-minute leads over a field of pre-war racing icons—Louis Chiron, Albert Divo, René Dreyfus, and Tazio Nuvolari, a man Ferdinand Porsche once called the “greatest racing driver of the past, present, and future.” But the 2.3-liter’s cooling system faltered, causing Junek to finish fifth (but in possession of the second-fastest lap and still just nine minutes behind the victorious Divo).A mere eight weeks after the ’28 Targa Florio, Cenek Junek was killed after crashing his Type 35B during the Grand Prix of Germany. Her husband’s death at the Nürburgring cast a pall over racing; Madame Junek never drove competitively again.
In a career that spanned just five years, Elizabeth Junek ran wheel-to-wheel with the world’s best drivers, revolutionized race-day preparation, and became the first (and only) woman to win a Grand Prix. What might she have achieved had she kept racing into the 1930s? For her contribution to motorsport alone, Junek deserves more credit than she’s received.