“I’m not sure whether I’m an actor who races or a racer who acts,” Steve McQueen once said. His iconic role in Le Mans cemented his image as a man who could drop Hollywood for Hockenheim at the turn of an ignition key, because away from the set McQueen was going off script in a race-bred Lotus.
The Lotus XI was the star’s second racing car, a step up from the Porsche Speedster 1600 Super he ran in his first formal race, held at Santa Barbara’s airport in 1959. McQueen won on his debut. “He talked about it for weeks to anyone who’d listen,” complained his wife at the time.
The Lotus arrived, and with a faster car came tougher competition. He came second the first time out, again at Santa Barbara. “In that Lotus I really started to become competitive. I was beginning to find out what real sports car racing was all about.”
He then raced at Del Mar, a temporary circuit at a fairground. He was leading when he accidentally hit the emergency fuel cut-off switch on the dash, which killed the power. “I was embarrassed about that, but I was still learning.”
To ramp up his education, McQueen invited Stirling Moss round to his L.A pad. “He was keen to talk about what it was like, because racing then was a romantic life, and that appealed to him,” explains Sir Stirling, who agreed to tutor him. “He could handle a car quite well. If he’d had wanted to he could have made a living at it, he had the flare for it.”
In the international playboy stakes, as well as racing, McQueen was still amateur-class compared to the rakish F1 driver, but his style impressed Moss. “He was very cool! The way he dressed, with his shirt cuffs turned up, very laid back. It was so effortless.”
By this time, in 1961, the studio had given McQueen an ultimatum: Give up racing, or forget the movies. Grudgingly, he sold the Lotus. But, given McQueen’s rebellious streak, he didn’t acquiesce for long.
He took class victory alongside Peter Revson in the Sebring 24 Hours in 1970. Remarkably, McQueen drove with his foot broken in six places after a motorbike crash two weeks earlier.
McQueen, naturally, wanted to race at Le Mans that summer too, but the studio, recalling their actor’s recent injuries, had other ideas. Sure, he could drive, and another actor would get the lead in Le Mans the movie. Faced with the choice of 24 hours’ racing or ten weeks filming behind the wheel, he chose the latter.
Finally, he decided, he was an actor after all. But racing was the part he was born for.