Speed Kings opens with what could easily be a scene from The Great Gatsby. An impossibly rich teenager sits behind the wheel of a Bentley Blower parked outside of the Carlton Hotel in Cannes. Itâ€™s September 1930; the French government has recently lifted the 12mph speed limit and the driver believes he can make Monte Carlo, 40 miles east, in less than an hour.
On paper, this sounds achievable, but the occasionally ridiculously narrow road via Nice, Villefranche, Eze and Cap dâ€™Ail consists of several dozen hairpin bends, a smattering of steep gradients, perhaps the most picturesque backdrop to any road in the world â€“ oh, and other vehicles. Pushing the car well beyond 100mph wherever he can, Billy Fiske III, son of a rich American banker, makes the journey with two minutes to spare, parking outside of the Monacoâ€™s famous Hotel de Paris.
Though Fiske was undeniably privileged, Speed Kings is not a tale of snobbery, social advantage and upper class power, but of a principled man who, three years before he careered along the Rivieraâ€™s Basse Corniche had become the youngest-ever winner of an Olympic gold medal, steering the USAâ€™s four-man bobsleigh to victory at St Moritz in 1928. He would do so again, at Lake Placid, in 1932, supported by four well-built characters (Clifford Gray, Eddie Eagan and Jay Oâ€™Brien) who could probably justify biographies of their own.
Fiske stood at just 5â€™8â€ť, but his force of personality and vision drew people to him; he was enormously popular and, at a time when bobsleighing (and the Cresta Run) had captured the publicâ€™s imagination because of the participantsâ€™ terrifying speed, he could rightly be called a sporting superhero.
Yes, Fiske was a playboy, but he was also a gentlemen who refused to attend the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany having travelled around Europe and seen the gathering storm of Nazism first-hand. Indeed, Fiske would become the first American to join the RAF and flew during the Battle of Britain. He could have taken the easy option and returned to the States, first class, but this man of fun, high jinks and merry-making did the right thing instead. This bookâ€™s moving finale will bring a lump to the throat. Buy it.