By Raquel Stecher
What did Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and James Garner have in common? Besides being acting legends, they also shared a passion for race car driving and a need for speed. In the 1960s, this trio became synonymous with Hollywood’s love affair with motor racing.
Let’s take a look at each of these three actors and how they came pursue this passion. Several of their racing films and documentaries are available to rent on DVD Netflix.
Paul Newman was a perfectionist through and through. While training for the auto racing movie Winning (1969), he studied at the Bon Bondurant School of Driving and was determined to master the art of the sport. He didn’t have a natural talent for racing, but that was superseded by his focus, willpower, and curiosity. Through his experience with Winning, he discovered that racing, not acting, was his true passion in life.
This put Newman in a precarious position. He was a highly valuable movie star and race car driving was a dangerous sport. But that didn’t stop him. This all-consuming passion led him to start racing at the age of 48. Newman was enamored not only with learning the technicalities and improving his performance but with the sport itself. He competed professionally in various races including the St. Petersburg Grand Prix and Le Mans. He owned his own racing team, Newman/Haas Racing, and became a mentor to up-and-coming drivers. Newman retired from the sport in his early ‘80s.
In the years after making Winning, he actively sought out scripts about racing, but never found a project that appealed to him. It wasn’t until was the animated film Cars came along, where he voiced the character of Doc Hudson, that he found that long awaited project. It was his final film role and a great tribute to this legend’s love of motor racing. Years after his death, his friends and colleagues were interviewed in a documentary about Newman’s racing career called Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman.
To say Steve McQueen was a car and motorcycle enthusiast is an understatement. He had a passion for speed that made its way into his many aspects of his life, including his acting career. Whether he was driving the green Ford Mustang through the winding streets of San Francisco in Bullitt (1968), riding a motorcycle through the German countryside in The Great Escape (1968), or racing a Porsche through France in Le Mans (1971), McQueen was in his element when he was on the road.
The movie studio execs didn’t want him doing the more dangerous stunts, but he more than capable of doing them. He didn’t have the chops to compete professionally, but that didn’t stop him from hitting the road in one of his many high performance vehicles.
Over the years, he collected a variety of antique motorcycles and sports cars including a Triumph Bonneville, Siata, Lotus XI, Porsche 356 Speedster, Ferrari 250 GR Lusso, and more. If you want to learn more about McQueen’s passion for racing, he’s profiled in Bruce Brown’s documentary On Any Sunday (1971) and in Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans.
One of McQueen’s co-stars in The Great Escape, James Garner was also a motor racing enthusiast. If you’ve ever seen Garner in the classic TV show The Rockford Files, you know that the man had a way with cars. It wasn’t the speed that interested Garner as much as it was learning to expertly maneuver a vehicle and the competition with other drivers.
Garner’s love of cars started at the age of 10, before his feet could even reach the pedals of a car. Years later, Garner got the chance of a lifetime to play Formula One racer in John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (1966). This big budget extravaganza is generally considered to be one of the best films about the sport. The authenticity came with the attention to detail from the realistic sound effects, the thrilling cinematography that puts the viewer in the driver’s seat, and the extensive training and use of real drivers in the film.
Like Paul Newman, Garner also trained with Bob Bondurant, who saw him as a natural born talent. Garner was an active participant in the making of the film, learning all he could from professional drivers and studying the sport.
After the film, Garner put his skills to the test and trained to a competitive level. He had his own racing team American International Racing and competed professionally in the Baja 1000 off-road race and the Indy 500 as a pace car driver. Garner was profiled in two documentaries about the Baja 1000 including Dust to Glory and Baja 1000 Classic.
Raquel Stecher has been writing about classic films for the past decade on her blog Out of the Past. She attends the TCM Classic Film Festival as well as other events where old movie fanatics get together to geek out. Raquel has been a devoted DVD Netflix member since 2002! Follow her on her blog Out of the Past or find her on Twitter @RaquelStecher and @ClassicFilmRead, Facebook, and Instagram.