Revised: October 31, 2010
Victor (August) Hemery was born in Sillé-le-Guillaume, a small town in La Sarthe, about 22 miles northwest from Le Mans, on November 18, 1876 He became a seaman as a young man, but was drawn to auto racing. His first appearance in motor racing was in the "Circuit du Nord" (Paris/Arras/Paris) held on May 15, 1902. His first significant result was 8th overall in Paris/Vienna (June 26 to 29, 1902). His first participation in the "Circuit des Ardennes" (Belgium) was in June 1903.
Entered in the British elimination race for the Gordon Bennett Cup, he drove a Darracq constructed in England. The car performed poorly and failed to qualify for the biggest race of the year. During the British elimination trial Hemery displayed what became his trademark irascible temperament, refusing to slow for controls. Despite the failure in the elimination race, Hemery found success in voiturette cars, winning class honors at the Coppa Florio road race (Italy) and second place behind George Heath at the Circuit des Ardennes (Belgium) in 1904.
Although Hemery failed again in 1905 to qualify for the Gordon Bennett Cup Race, that season proved to be his greatest year at the wheel of a race car. He won both the Circuit des Ardennes Race and the Vanderbilt Cup Race in October. The 1905 Vanderbilt Cup Race was Fiat driver Vincenzo Lancia’s to lose. Lancia’s first four laps were successively faster, all in excess of 70 miles per hour – a speed no other driver could touch throughout the entire race.
Hemery got off to a slow start, lapping at the back of the field before moving into third by lap 3. His closest competitor was the race’s defending champion, George Heath. Neither could come near the speed of Lancia, who lapped the entire field by lap 8. Heath on the Panhard ran in second place over Hemery in the Darracq with a margin of 3 minutes and 30 seconds separating them. Truly Lancia’s race to lose, he paid the consequences for an impetuous decision after stopping for fuel and tires at a Fiat repair station near Albertson. After a 16-minute delay the Italian was apparently impatient to return to the fray. Allowing his enthusiasm to overcome his judgment, he pulled onto the course in the face of a fast approaching Walter Christie. The inevitable collision destroyed the front-wheel drive Christie and damaged the Fiat so severely that Lancia was forced to stop again for repairs, ruining his chances for victory.
With Lancia delayed, the race centered on the previous year’s winner, Heath’s Panhard and Hemery’s Darracq. Heath continued to lose ground to Hemery, with one report indicating that his Panhard’s brakes began to malfunction on lap 8. Heath also stopped for gas, oil and water at the Panhard repair station in Albertson.
During this stop Hemery soared by Heath, which proved to be the most crucial pass of the race. Heath carved better than a minute off Hemery’s lead by the start of lap 10, making for high drama among the spectators. The two drivers were so close Heath could see Hemery’s Darracq in the distance. Telephoned reports from the 15 observation locations around the course came with updates in rapid succession, building anticipation in the frenzied grandstand crowd.
But Hemery’s Darracq delivered speed when he needed it most and he was the fastest of the drivers still running that final lap. At 10:52:08 a.m., Hemery won the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup Race. Heath’s Panhard finally came across the start-finish line 32 seconds later, giving Hemery, who started his Darracq 3 minutes after Heath, a 3 minute, 32 second margin at the finish. It proved to be Hemery’s only appearance in the Vanderbilt Cup Race.Hemery demonstrated some of his surly behavior during the weigh-out after the Vanderbilt Cup Race. He pushed past some photographers who surrounded him after climbing from his car and one of the Darracq crew reportedly hit a Collier’s Weekly photographer. Two days later, on Monday, October 16th he learned that the Automobile Club of Italy had suspended him for a year due to “impertinence” directed at timing officials after the Florio Cup Race ran earlier in the year. Another cable the following day declared that the Automobile Club of France (ACF) supported the suspension as well. Because of their affiliation with the ACF, the Automobile Club of America followed suit. When asked what he had done to offend the officials, Hemery said bluntly that he had told them to, “Go to hell.” But after negotiations with the ACF and official apologies from Hémery the suspension was removed.
On December 30, 1905 Hemery pushed a 200 horsepower Darracq to the fastest kilometer on record at 109.650 miles per hour at Arles-Salon in France. Less than a month later, in January 1906 at the Florida Speed Tournament, Hemery became embroiled in arguments with officials and was disqualified from the meet. His car was assigned to Louis Chevrolet, whom he mentored during this time.
Hemery drove for the Benz team in 1907, his only notable finish a second at the Coppa Florio Race. His next significant accomplishment came in 1908 when he drove a Benz to victory at the St. Petersburg-to-Moscow race. A second place finish in the French Grand Prix was followed by another second in the American Grand Prize in Savannah. There was little racing in 1909, but Hemery made headlines with a 125.95 mile per hour run at Brooklands in a giant 21.5 liter Benz. In the 1910 American Grand Prize, Hemery in a Benz finished a strong second only 1.42 seconds behind the winner David Bruce-Brown.
After a victory driving a Fiat in the 1911 French Grand Prix, Hemery’s racing career trailed off. Attempting a comeback in 1922 and 1923, he drove for the Rollands-Pilains team in the French Grand Prix in both years. Off the pace, the performance of the Rollands-Pilains was lacking and no amount of Hemery bravado could make a difference. Hemery ran a garage later in life, but even away from the stress of racing’s risks and competition his volatile nature prevailed to the end. On September 9, 1950, he took his own life just two months short of his 74th birthday.