Before the Indy 500, and before the Grand Prix, there was the Gordon Bennett Cup, Europe’s first great car race which ran for 6 years from 1900 until 1905. For the last two years of the race, 1904 and 1905, Leon Thery (16 April 1879 – 8 March 1909), a mechanic and race car driver, won the competition.
Thery’s first big race occurred in 1899—the Bordeaux to Paris Race. He drove a tiller-steered Decauville a whopping 19 miles per hour to come in second on the 351 mile course arriving exhausted, delirious, and suffering from amnesia. These early days of racing were hair raising with cars careening around mountains on unpaved roads, dodging pedestrians, other racing cars, and farm animals. However, occasionally, the drivers were befallen with bad luck. In 1902, a brake failure around a mountain pass and the misfortune of Thery hitting a hog going full speed ended his hopes for winning the Ardennes Cup.
In spite of Thery’s early misfortunes, he continued on and eventually won the Gordon Bennett Cup, not once but twice, driving a Richard-Brasier to the finish line and becoming a French Race Car hero. Though Thery continued to race he never again won a race. He died at 29 of tuberculosis and was buried at Le Père Lachaise with a monument that honors his racing career.