- November 16, 1900
- January 05, 1994
- Czech Republic
- Not Active
Some female racing drivers, like Maria Teresa de Filippis, Janet Guthrie or Michele Mouton, marked the history of motorsport as a pioneers in the world premier racing competitions such are Formula 1, Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 or World Rally Championship, but one young girl, born in 1900 in Moravia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, earned a place in the motorsport history as the first ever woman to win in the Grand Prix event. Her name was Eliška Junkova, also known as Elisabeth Junek.
A blacksmith's daughter met a love of his life in a bank
Eliška Junkova was born on November 16, 1900, in Olomouc, Moravia, as Alžbeta Pospišilova, in a family of a blacksmith. She was nicknamed 'Smišek' (Smiley) because she was always smiling. At the age of 16, she was working in a bank and there she met Vincenc 'Čenek' Junek, her future husband.
After World War I, when Moravia became a part of newly formed Czechoslovakia, she was an employee of the Prague Credit Bank in Olomouc. As a part of her job, she was traveling across Czechoslovakia and then to France and Gibraltar.
Eliška was following racing footsteps of her husband
In 1922, Eliška and Vincenc get married and she changed a name to Eliška Junkova. Her husband was wealthy enough to indulge his automotive passion and he started a racing career in 1922. He owned a Mercedes and then a Bugatti Type 30.
Eliška initially served as husband's riding mechanic but she then decided to follow husband's footsteps as a racer, so she took driving lessons and started to drive. She started to race by herself in 1924, also scoring her first win that year when she won touring car class in the race between Lochotin and Tremošna.
Good result converted Eliška into an international celebrity
In 1925, Eliška clinched an overall victory in the race between Zbraslav and Jilovište, becoming a national celebrity. After that, she and husband bought another Bugatti.
By 1926, Eliška was good enough to race against the best male drivers across Europe, gaining some notable results. She finished second at Klausenpass hillclimb in Switzerland and ran in the fourth place before crashing out at Targa Florio, where she was the first ever woman to participate in the race.
All that made her an international celebrity. The press nicknamed her The Queen of the Steering Wheel and she anglicized her name to Elisabeth.
Class victory in the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring
The highlight of Eliška's career was a class victory in the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring in July 1927, which placed her on a podium as the first ever woman to win in the Grand Prix event. In that race, she was driving the #21 Bugatti T35, finishing fourth overall and the first in three-liter class.
It's interesting that Eliška sustained injuries in a celebration on a podium when an overall winner Otto Merz embraced her. She had two broken ribs.
Fighting for a victory at 1928 Targa Florio
In 1928, Eliška bought a new Bugatti Type 35B, wanting to have a car eligible to win races. She showed an outstanding performance at Targa Florio, leading the race after two laps on the 108 km long circuit around Sicily.
On the fifth and final lap, she ran into trouble, finally finishing in the fifth place but still beating more than twenty top class drivers, including some famous Grand Prix stars like Luigi Fagioli, Tazio Nuvolari or Ernesto Maserati. The race winner was Albert Divo in a Bugatti T35B.
Retiring from racing after husband's death
Unfortunately, a tragedy interrupted a successful career on June 17, 1928. Eliška and Čenek raced together in the German Grand Prix in the #9 Bugatti T35B. After she was done with her stint, Čenek took over a car and went off the road soon after that. He was killed instantly. Eliška was devastated and she retired from racing immediately, selling all her vehicles.
After giving up of racing, she turned to his first passion of traveling. Ettore Bugatti himself gave her a new touring car for a journey to Ceylon, also hiring her to seek new business opportunities for him. Eliška remarried after the World War II. During the Communist authorities, she was largely forgotten but she lived long enough to regain her position in the motorsport history when Iron Curtain felt.
In 1989, at the age 89, she attended a Bugatti reunion in the US as the guest of honor. Eliška died in January 1994 in Prague.