Eliška Junková (16 November 1900 – 5 January 1994), born Alžběta Pospíšilová and also known as Elizabeth Junek, was a Czechoslovakian automobile racer. She is regarded as one of the greatest female drivers in Grand Prix motor racing history.
The sixth of eight children born to a blacksmith in Olomouc, Moravia, Austro-Hungarian empire, she was nicknamed smíšek at an early age for her ever-present smile. Following the end of World War I, when her native Moravia became part of the new republic of Czechoslovakia, she found work in the Olomouc branch of the Pražská úvěrová banka (Prague Credit Bank) thanks to her multilingual skills, honed through her desire to travel the world. It was here that she met Vincenc "Čeněk" Junek, an ambitious young banker who shared her fascination with speed, and who would eventually become her husband.
Work took her first to Brno, then Prague, then abroad to France and Gibraltar, although bureaucracy prevented her travelling as far as North Africa, London or Ceylon, as had been her original intention. She returned to Paris to be reunited with her love, who by this time had become wealthy enough to indulge his automotive passions.
Eliska later recalled: "If he is going to be the love of my life, then I better learn to love these damned engines." But she too soon fell for the charms of sports cars of the time, especially Bugattis. They returned to Prague in 1922, where she took clandestine driving lessons to obtain her license. Meanwhile, Čeněk had started racing in earnest. He won the Zbraslav-Jíloviště hillclimb in 1922, the year they finally married.
Behind the wheel
They purchased a Mercedes that same year, and then a Bugatti Type 30 which had previously been raced in the French Grand Prix. Initially she served as riding mechanic to her husband, but a hand injury incurred during the war affected his ability to shift gears, and this afforded her the opportunity to take the wheel in his place. Eliška's first professional race was in 1923, at Čeněk's side. The following year she raced by herself and at Lochotín-Třemošná won in the category of touring cars, becoming a national celebrity overnight. She then placed first at Zbraslav-Jíloviště in 1925, and the Juneks bought a second Bugatti to celebrate. By 1926, Eliška Junková was good enough to compete in races throughout Europe against the best male drivers of the age. As she gained fame throughout Europe, garnering the nickname Queen of the steering wheel in the racing press of the day, Eliška was anglicized to Elizabeth.
In 1926, she was runner up in the Klausenpass hill climb in Switzerland, and then competed in the Targa Florio in Sicily, a race where stamina was as necessary as speed due to the demands of the rough and often muddy course. But Eliška was a gifted technical driver, and she is often credited for being one of the first drivers to walk round a course before an event, noting landmarks and checking out the best line through the corners. Exploiting her diligent preparation, she was running in fourth place before she crashed out, garnering great respect from her contemporaries. Shortly thereafter, she won the two-liter sports car class at Nürburgring, Germany.
With her sights firmly set on winning the 1928 Targa Florio, she acquired a new Bugatti Type 35B to enable her to be on an equal footing with the top male competitors. At the end of the first lap Junek was fourth behind the famous Louis Chiron in his factory sponsored Bugatti, but on the second lap she took the lead. On the final lap she ran into trouble and ended up finishing fifth but still beat 25 other top drivers including the likes of Luigi Fagioli, René Dreyfus, Ernesto Maserati and Tazio Nuvolari.
Tragedy and later life
Back at Nürburgring in July 1928, she shared the driving with her husband at the German Grand Prix. Having just changed places with him, he went off course and was killed instantly. Junek was devastated — she gave up racing and sold her vehicles, and returned to her first passion of travelling. Ettore Bugatti himself gave her a new touring car for her journey to Ceylon, and hired her to seek out new business opportunities in Asia.
Eliska eventually found love again and remarried shortly after the Second World War. But from 1948 to 1964, the Communist authorities, disapproving of the high-flying, bourgeois lifestyle that she had lived, refused to allow her to travel abroad. Like Hellé Nice, her great female counterpart from France, she was largely forgotten by the motor racing world. But she lived well into her nineties, long enough for the iron curtain to fall and for the "queen of the steering wheel" to regain her position in automotive racing history. In 1989, at the age of 89 and against the advice of her doctor, she attended a Bugatti reunion in the United States as the guest of honor.
- Eliska Junkova: The Czech racing queen of the Jazz Age – an article on the Czech Radio 7 – Radio Praha