Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Camille du Gast


One of the earliest speedqueens to race at all was Camille du Gast. She was certainly the first woman to race at international level when she took the wheel of her 20hp Panhard to contest the 1901 Paris-Berlin race, and finished 33rd out of over 100 starters. A true continental road racer, her next grand epreuve was the 1903 Paris-Madrid race, driving a De Dietrich. Her entry for the New York-San Francisco race in 1902 had been refused by its governing body, which did not approve of female drivers. The Paris-Madrid trail was halted at Bordeaux after a string of fatalities to both drivers and spectators. Camille is always associated with this "Race to Death", and had been running as high as sixth in her 30hp De Dietrich. Unfortunately, a stop to rescue her team-mate Stead after an accident dropped her to 77th. Her drive impressed the Benz factory team enough to offer her a seat in a works car, but women were barred from competition by the authorities in 1904, so nothing became of it.

Although married to a Parisian shop manager, Camille always competed under her maiden name. Her riding mechanic was no less than the Prince du Sagan. After her four-wheeled career came to its abrupt end, she turned to racing motor boats, and may also have made some speed-record attempts. Her battling performance in the 1904 Toulon-Algiers boat race, which was abandoned due to atrocious conditions, lived up to her nickname in her native France: l'Amazone.

After her enforced retirement from high-speed activities, she trained horses, gave piano recitals and founded the French equivalent of the RSPCA, as well as a charity that provided healthcare to disadvantaged women and children. It is this part of her life that is most remembered in France, although her sporting activities are still recognised.

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