History Lesson – Hollywood Behind the Wheel

With the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach coming up this weekend, I’ve been spending a lot of time explaining to my friends in Los Angeles why their commute to the beach will be messed up for the next several days.  It’s not exactly the type of pro-racing conversation I’d like to have with people, as most of them simply complain about the added traffic on their way to the beach, but it is a conversation that gets me talking about racing nonetheless, and specifically racing as it relates to Los Angeles and the Hollywood scene as a whole.  And that got me thinking…


Since the 1960’s, the world of auto racing has always attracted celebrities.  There are countless home videos and stock photographs of Formula One drivers sitting arm and arm with rock gods and movie stars.  Today that tradition continues, especially in Formula One, where, on the grid walk it is quite possible to see any one from Gerard Butler to Owen Wilson to Stephen Tyler.  And while yes, the allure of fast cars and large paychecks may be what lures some stars into the sport, the truth is that there are a few that have leapt out of Hollywood and jumped into the world of racing.

Obviously, one of the first such speed demons was the late great James Dean who, like so many other drivers of his time, died too early.  Dean, apart from being Hollywood’s resident bad boy, was an avid racer who would take MGs and Porsches out onto the racetracks surrounding Los Angeles and prove his worth to any who wished to go head to head with him.  And by all accounts he was good.  Very good.

Despite Dean’s death, other actors have followed in his footsteps, being bitten by the racing bug in one way or another.  Gene Hackman, after filming (and doing a lions share of the stunt driving for) The French Connection couldn’t seem to get himself out of a car.  He continued to drive competitively after the film wrapped, mostly on the GT circuit, and reached the pinnacle of his racing career by getting the chance to drive for the legendary Dan Gurney in the 24 Hours of Daytona.

When John Frankenheimer cast James Garner in his Formula One masterpiece, Grand Prix, little did he know that he had cast a man who, as 2 time World Champion Graham Hill once said, “Was good enough to drive professionally.”  And race professionally he did, entering in countless races and even starting his own racing outfit American International Racing.

Even legendary newscaster Walter Cronkite was bitten by the racing bug.  Yes, the man who brought us the news every night, occasionally strapped himself behind the wheel, once even entering and finishing the grueling 12 Hours of Sebring in a Lancia.


This love of cars has not gone by the wayside as time has gone along.  No, even today countless celebrities, on their weekends off, take to tracks around the world to test their mettle against other drivers.  Rowan Atkinson, of Mr. Bean fame, has raced and continues to race in GT races across the UK (although he is perhaps most automotively famous for crashing his McLaren F1).  Paul Walker, before his death, was a racing enthusiast and co-owner of Always Evolving Racing Team.  And perhaps most famously, Patrick Dempsey takes to the track in his off time, earning him the dubious honor of having the largest insurance bond ever taken out on a driver.  He was a fixture at Le Mans for several years and continues to be active in the GT-AM team he co-owns, Dempsey Proton Racing.

But, I am of course leaving out the two true Hollywood titans of motorsports: Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.

Depending on who you talk to, it’s a coin flip as to whether Steve McQueen is better known as an actor or a driver.  As an actor, he was the King of Cool in such films as The Great Escape, The Cincinnati Kid, or Bullit.  But on the track, he was a fierce competitor as well.  He wouldn’t merely go out and race for the fun of it, no McQueen went out to win.  And he raced everything, touring cars, endurance cars, bikes, everything.  He even owned a Cooper Formula One car.  He partnered with Peter Revson at the Hours of Sebring, only to lose to a one Mario Andretti.  His love of racing was so infectious in his life that when creating the movie Le Mans, he originally was set to partner with three time world champion Jackie Stewart and film the race as it happened. But the studios were not keen on letting their lead actor streak down the Mulsanne at nearly 200 mp/h during an active race, so McQueen was forced to return to the track a month or so after the race had concluded and film the movie on a closed track.  And while I will be the first to admit that Le Mans as a movie is certainly not on the level of The Godfather, there can be no doubt that it contains some of the finest footage of racing every projected onto a big screen.

And finally we come to Paul.  Paul Newman, America’s sweetheart.  Like Hackman and Garner, Newman fell in love with racing because of a movie he made, 1969’s Winning.  The movie is largely forgettable save for some actual footage of the 1968 Indianapolis 500 (and the horrific wreck at the start of the 1966 race).  But the movie got Paul hooked and soon after wrapping filming he began racing in Can-Am.  While a bit shakey at first, Newman took his work as a driver incredibly seriously and began to win by the mid-70’s.  By 1986 he had racked up 4 SCCA championships and, in the 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans race he and his teammates came 2nd overall.  In 1983 Newman, alongside businessmen Carl Haas formed Newman/Haas racing, a team that led the Andretti family, Nigel Mansell, and Sebastian Bourdais to championships in the IndyCar series.  Even as Newman got older, his love of racing never died.  At age 81 he set the world record for oldest ever entrant into the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.  At his last race in Can-Am, at age 82, Newman managed to take pole position.  For Newman’s last role in a movie, it was perhaps fitting then, that he should play Doc Hudson, an aging race car, giving advice to a young hotshot, in Pixar’s Cars.


So there you have it.  A quick history lesson about Hollywood and racing.  There are many drivers and actors who I’m sure I forgot to mention.  But they are out there.  And as long as cars are still whizzing around a circuit, I’m sure there will be more to come.

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