French Showgirl Became A Popular Racing Driver

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DRIVER’S SEAT: French driver Helle Nice behind the wheel of an early era racing car. (Bob Gates Collection Photo)
DRIVER’S SEAT: French driver Helle Nice behind the wheel of an early era racing car. (Bob Gates Collection Photo)

Born Mariette Helene Delangle in a small French village, she grew up disgruntled with the slow-paced French-country lifestyle. She wanted excitement, and, at 16, pursued that desire in Paris. Attractive, slim, athletic, she changed her name to Helle Nice and found fame as a model for “risqué” postcards, and as an exotic dancer.

By her mid-20s she was one of the most recognized personalities in the sparkling City of Lights. She owned her own house, a yacht and her suitors included Philippe de Rothschild, Jean Bugatti and a host of other notables.

In 1927, still looking for excitement, she entered a charity auto race held among Paris entertainers. Known as the Actors Championship, she won and her life was forever changed.

At a time when women in racing were considered a novelty and relegated to women’s events, Nice fought her way to the status of legitimate racer.

She made her name in Europe running hill climbs, rallies and sports-car races, and then purchased a Bugatti T35C for $1,600 that she raced in grand prix events against the greatest drivers of that era.

Her fame grew worldwide. Sponsored by the William Morris Talent Agency, she toured the United States in 1930. Not allowed to race because she was a woman, she still drew huge, enthusiastic crowds to her demonstration runs in a Miller racer.

In 1936, she traveled to Brazil for the São Paulo Grand Prix. The trip ended tragically. Fans pushing close to the track to glimpse the acclaimed Nice inadvertently shoved a hay bale into her path. She hit it at 100 miles per hour.

The car thrashed into the crowd, killing four and injuring 30. Nice was catapulted from the car. Her flying body struck a soldier. He died, she survived, but in a coma.

After a year of recovery, she began her comeback just as World War II shut down racing. Nice lived through the war on the Riviera, funded with a settlement from the Brazilian government for their negligence in the São Paulo accident.

However, when racing resumed post-WWII, she entered the 1949 Monte Carlo Rally. At the pre-rally dinner fellow racer Louis Chiron publicly accused her of fraternizing with the Nazis, a charge made believable because of her much-publicized lifestyle.

That accusation was never substantiated, but she couldn’t shake its stigma. Deserted by her friends and family, her money ran through by her lover, Helle Nice died penniless and forgotten in 1984 without even a marker for her grave.

That was rectified in September 2010 when a memoriam was held at her gravesite. Presented by the Helle Nice Foundation, a permanent marker was laid as a lasting reminder of the avant-garde pioneer woman racer once said of by a French reporter, “elle a du cran!”— “the girl’s got guts!”