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Sir Henry Segrave was Britain’s star racing driver of the 1920s – the country’s only Grand Prix winner for over 30 years. But it was record breaking exploits and the reaction to his death from overseas that indicated his status in the sport worldwide.
Family background and early racing career
Born in America to an Irish father and American mother, his family had moved to England by the end of World War I. Segrave competed at Brooklands with a 1914 Opel GP car and was winning races by 1920. He was an iconic figure who somehow epitomised Britain’s re-emergence from the shadows of conflict.
He joined Sunbeam in 1921 and made his GP debut in the French GP. Delayed by mechanical problems and numerous punctures, Segrave finished in ninth and last position. The team also struggled in the race a year later when no match for the speedy Fiats.
Grand Prix winner for Sunbeam
However, that all changed in the 1923 French GP. Sunbeam arrived at Tours with all-new British Racing Green Fiat copies and when Carlo Salamano’s Fiat 805 engine failed with three laps to go, Segrave became the first British driver to win a continental GP. He led the 1924 French GP from the start but was delayed by a misfire and recovered to finish fifth.
He did win a GP that year – victorious at San Sebastian in Northern Spain despite stopping to check on the welfare of a crashed team-mate. He made his only appearance in the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1925. His Sunbeam led for the opening hour before retiring with clutch failure.
He won both the Provence GP at Miramas and Brooklands’ JCC 200 in 1925 and 1926. That latter success was his last on Europe’s circuits for Segrave harboured new ambitions.
Land Speed Record
On March 21 1926 his Sunbeam Ladybird established a new outright Land Speed Record at over 174mph on Southport Sands and he became the first person to average over 200mph a year later at Daytona Beach. For the next few years Segrave traded the record with Malcolm Campbell, J.G.Parry-Thomas and Ray Keech. Segrave’s Napier Golden Arrow raised the standard to over 231mph on Daytona Beach on March 11 1929. Progress was rapid with each new run adding to his fame and legend.
Segrave now turned his attention to the Water Speed Record. His boat Miss England beat famed American Garfield Wood in an international event at Miami and Segrave was knighted in recognition of his achievements. Wood raised the Water Speed Record to 93.123mph at Indian Creek later that month and Segrave intended to retake the record.
His new charge Miss England II was ready for an attempt on Friday June 13 1930 at Lake Windermere. While completing the run the vessel hit a log with catastrophic consequences. She capsized with one mechanic drowned in the accident. Segrave’s unconscious body was recovered to hospital. He briefly regained consciousness and asked "have I broken the record?"
The answer was "yes" and Segrave was the first person to hold both Land and Water Speed Records simultaneously. However, he succumbed to his injuries later that day and his passing was met with an outpouring of grief around the world – a true racing adventurer was gone.