If you ask why celebrity drivers race, then you might as well ask the question of every driver, because the motivation, drive to succeed and love of risk, mixed with the desire to win must surely be the same. Just because one is famous, doesn't mean their reasons to drive are any different - or are they?
The celebrity love of racing cars is one with a noble history for it is rare to find the same in horse racing, running, or shooting. Racing has an attraction to the celebrity like no other, perhaps because the risk is that much greater, you're not likely to die running or on the back of a horse, or even shooting, unless your aim is freakishly bad - yet racing can result in serious injury or death.
As you will have guessed we will be looking at celebrity racing car drivers, hence the title, but focus on three in particular, James Dean, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. There are many more, but perhaps those three are the most charismatic, not only for their careers, but for the mystique that surrounded them and their reputation as tough leading men who preferred to keep their private lives out of the papers, a world away from the celebrity/gossip driven world of today. It only added to the aura of secrecy that surrounded them for most of their adult lives.
James Dean only ever made 3 films and he was the first and perhaps the only actor to have been nominated for an Oscar posthumously following his fatal crash in the Porsche 550 Spyder at the age of 24. Dean was a keen racer and like McQueen later, enjoyed riding both motorcycles as well as cars, at one time owning a Triumph T110 650cc in 1955. Dean traded in and bought faster more sophisticated cars, once trading a 1953 MG TG Sports car for the Porsche Super Speedster.
He would win the Palm Springs Road Race in it, coming first in the novice class and 2nd overall in the main event on the Sunday, an impressive start for the young actor. He went on to win at Bakersfield on May 1 - 2nd finishing first again in his class and 3rd overall.
His final race with the Speedster was at Santa Barbara on Memorial Day May 30th where he started in 18th position and fought his way to 4th place, however his race ended when he blew a piston, arguably from enthusiastic over-rewing of the engine.
During the filming of Giant Dean was barred from driving, but once filming had ended Dean got the faster more powerful Spyder for the Salinas Road Race which was scheduled for the beginning of October the same year.
Dean named the car "little bastard" and had it painted across the rear cowling of the car. As we now know, Dean never entered the race as he was killed on the way in the Spyder in September of the same year. Strangely enough a week before the accident legend has it that Dean had asked Alec Guiness what he thought of his new car (Spyder), with Guiness declaring that he thought the car sinister and if he (Dean) got in the car he'd be found dead in it by "this time next week."
Dean did indeed die a week later, although it has been argued in the years since that it wasn't due to him speeding, as a police officer later argued in the mid-nineties that he would only have been driving at about 55ph due to the position of the body and car after he died.
We don't know what kind of driver Dean would have made if he had not been killed that day, perhaps a more seasoned and thoughtful driver, fast, and willing to take risks, yet less inclined to make impulsive mistakes, perhaps he would have become a fulltime driver altogether and abandoned his film career. We'll never know.
Colour blind but interested in driving early on, Newman was so keen on driving that he appeared in a documentary about the history of auto-racing back in 1971. He appeared in his first professional event in 1972 entering the Thompson International Speedway as P.L Newman.
He also competed often in the Sports Car Club of America and would go on to win 4 national championships. He drove in 24 hours of Le Mans in 1979 finishing second, and would go on to compete in the Petit Le Mans. He would go on to drive for Bob Sharp Racing Team from the mid 70s to the early 90s for the Trans Am series.
He was fortunate enough to go on to drive successfully in several races, in fact he went on to drive in his 70s and 80s. He won the accolade of oldest driver when he took part in 24 hours of Daytona. Competing in his 80s he drove in Lime Rock with his age as his car number - 81 and again in 2008 with 9/10th of his best time.
Steve McQueen put it perfectly when he said that "when you're just racing, it's life, anything that happens before or after is just waiting." McQueen was, like Dean, a skilled motorcyclist as well as an excellent car driver. And it was a lifelong passion culminating in a project he had long wished to make - the film of Le Mans.
He toyed with professional driving, taking part in a one off at the British Touring Car Championship in 1961, where he drove a BMC Mini coming in third at Brands Hatch. He took part in the Sebring 12 hr race in 1970 with Peter Revson winning in a Porsche 908/02, although remarkably he was wearing a cast on his left foot as he drove following a motorcycle accident.
He also frequently took part in off-road motorcycle races riding a BSA Hornet. McQueen often drove with Bud Ekins, his stunt double, and in 1964 entered a 4 rider event in the Silver Vase category of the International Six Days Trial in Erfurt, East Germany. His car number - 278 which was his starting order in the trial. Sadly, they retired after serious crash damage.
What strikes you about these celebrity drivers is that although the very term "celebrity drivers" gives an almost dismissive tone to it, it doesn't do either Dean, Newman or McQueen any credit - for they were good drivers and won races. They weren't tolerated or given special treatment as this is not a business for mollycoddling. You either work hard to be the best you can be, or don't drive at all. And they were good at it, good enough to win.
Is there a connection between this type of driver, comparing all three? Perhaps burning ambition and a desire to win which would be in common with other racers. Neither Dean or McQueen were great intellectuals, although Newman graduated with a degree in drama and economics from Kenyon College back in '49. Perhaps it has nothing to do with intellectualism and neither is there a connection with them being performers. Perhaps it had more to do with a desire to get away from the unreal, the transitory and seemingly shallow world they all occupied. Maybe they wanted to feel exactly and as simply as McQueen had put it, to experience life, to feel the adrenaline of racing, to feel they were no longer a film star, but simply a racing car driver. And perhaps that is the reason why they drove, not just to win, but to exist in an entirely different universe.
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