A Personal Passion for Le Mans

Porsche can be proud of everything it did to support Steve McQueen’s dream of a great movie about racing: Le Mans.

Photo: A Personal Passion for Le Mans 1
September 17, 2020

Shining brightly in the Hollywood firmament after the success of his film Bullitt, partly backed by his own company Solar Productions, Steve McQueen finally felt ready to realize the auto-racing film of his dreams. In 1966 he planned Day of a Champion about Grand Prix racing but had been unable to launch it when production ran overtime on another film in which he was starring. The opportunity was seized instead by John Frankenheimer with his impressive Grand Prix.

McQueen’s passion for motorsports was long-standing. When he was a New York actor his first sports car was an MG TC, followed by an Austin-Healey. Throughout his life, McQueen was a practiced and passionate off-road motorcycle rider. Like California contemporaries Dan Gurney and Skip Hudson, he also drove a Porsche 356 1600 Super Speedster.

Like them, McQueen was tempted to race his Porsche. His first outing was in May of 1959 in a novice race at Santa Barbara, which he won. Further victories came at Del Mar and Willow Springs. McQueen moved up to a Porsche 356 Carrera Speedster and then to a Lotus 11 that he raced at Riverside, Del Mar, and Santa Barbara. He also had racing cars on his mind when he went to England in late 1961 to film War Lover.

“I began racing on weekends at Oulton Park, Aintree, and Brands Hatch, scamming rides in whatever I could get,” he said. Soon he bought a Formula Junior Cooper that had been raced as a works car. McQueen arranged for Cooper to ship it back to the States, where he started racing it in April of 1962. He had good results at Del Mar and Santa Barbara but overdrove at Cotati to compensate for a loss of one cylinder “and went off into the weeds.” He had a cut over one eye. A few weeks later “when I got home, the studio had a lawyer sittin’ on my doorstep with a piece of paper for me to sign—no more sports-car racing.”

Photo: A Personal Passion for Le Mans 2

This #22 917 KH was driven by Larry Wilson (played by Christopher Waite) and was the sister car to the #21 917 driven by Michael Delaney (Steve McQueen) in Le Mans. Porsche works racer Herbert Linge served as the stunt driver of this machine.

After the success of Bullitt, McQueen felt it was time to make his racing film. Getting the backing of Cinema Center Films, a new arm of CBS, he focused on the drama that is Le Mans.

“For us to capture on film the greatest endurance race in the world has really got us excited,” McQueen enthused. “People in the industry think we’re out of our minds to tackle such a great race. They’re afraid to tackle it and I can understand why: you only get one shot at it. But I’m really excited about it. It is a terrific race, very moving. The emotional build-up of Le Mans is fantastic. When the countdown started, the excitement shown by 500,000 people was wild.”

McQueen was speaking of his crew’s visit to the 1969 race, scene of the dramatic last-laps duel between Hans Herrmann in the Porsche 908L and Jacky Ickx in a Ford GT40. This would turn out to be a template for the ending of McQueen’s movie. At Le Mans, French journalist Gérard “Jabby” Crombac became a useful contact for McQueen. He introduced him to people of influence in the sport, including Rico Steinemann, the Swiss who in 1969 had taken over from Huschke von Hanstein as Porsche’s motor-sports director. Former magazine editor and racing driver Steinemann was as publicity-savvy as he was knowledgeable about motorsports.

“We chatted about this and that,” said Steinemann about his meeting with McQueen, “and an immediate interest awoke in me to know this man better. Every word he spoke indicated factual knowledge, interest, and love for motorsport. He knew what racing was all about. He knew what happens under the engine lid of a racer and what goes on in the head of a driver waiting for the start.

Photo: A Personal Passion for Le Mans 3

The eventual second-place finishing McQueen/ Revson 908/02 leads the 917 of Jo Siffert, Brian Redman, and Leo Kinnunen at Sebring in 1970.

“We spoke of Steve’s great project,” Steinemann added. “He described the filming techniques which his small crew developed in Bullitt and which he wanted to perfect at Le Mans, that orgy for any camera. Finally, he said, ‘Perhaps I will drive races again in case it should be useful in this film.’”

In the autumn of 1969, Steinemann visited McQueen in California. “The project had started to take shape,” the Swiss learned, “and the film would be made at Le Mans in 1970. Steve naturally played the lead and wanted—in keeping with his movie realism—to enter the race.” When their discussion turned to cars “Steve said, without much discussion, ‘I want to work with what I consider the best sports cars and, as an old Porsche driver, I know very well which these would be.’

“In order to get warmed up himself over the winter,” added Steinemann, “and for later use in the race and film as a camera car, Steve ordered a 908 spyder.” The Porsche man persuaded his colleagues that the film’s publicity value would make it worth Porsche’s while to make a car available to McQueen for the duration of the project. Although McQueen’s Solar Productions would enter it in races, the car would remain Porsche’s property for the time being.

As the basis for a suitable car, Porsche’s technicians turned to a 908/02 spyder. Although the Porsche 917 was the company’s new hot machine, such cars and their parts were in short supply while the 908 was being phased out. The 908 was a more raceable proposition for McQueen, who had to brush up his skills. The chassis chosen chassis (#908-022) had raced as a long-tail coupe at Daytona in 1969. Its frame was altered, and a new body was prepared to present it in open “Flounder” specification. The modifications were completed on November 28th, 1969.

Photo: A Personal Passion for Le Mans 4

With his wife Neile Adams and Porsche racing chief Rico Steinemann, McQueen contemplated their Sebring loot.

Arriving in California in December, the Porsche was received by Porsche+ Audi Pacific on a temporary visa for McQueen’s use in preparing for the film. McQueen wanted to get his driving skills up to speed. He also needed to qualify for an international racing license. “I’d have to race in SCCA again,” McQueen said. “I have my old competition license, which is no good. I’d have to go to them and ask: Would you give me an FIA competition license, renewed on this basis, so I could run in practice at Le Mans? That’s the best we’re looking for.”

The car’s preparation was assigned to Richie Ginther, who, in June 1969, had set up a shop for this purpose in Culver City, California. Former team driver for Ferrari, BRM, and Honda, Ginther was also preparing the Porsche 917PA that Jo Siffert was driving in the lucrative Can-Am series. “Rich is a very sharp fellow,” said McQueen. “He knows Porsches. Raced them for years. With him setting up the 908 I know I’ll get full potential out of the car. The rest is up to me.”

Liveried a glossy white, the 908 was soon being practiced by McQueen in private at Willow Springs. Ginther, who last drove a Formula One car in anger in 1967, set bogey times. Soon he reported to Rico Steinemann: “I have to hustle now to be barely a second faster than Steve. The man is ready for any race on any track.”

McQueen’s first outing was in an SCCA National meeting at Holtville in Southern California in February of 1970. He won the race for Class A sports-racing cars, carving two seconds off the lap record. The second entry was in another SCCA National at Riverside, a track with a daunting reputation for personal and material damage. After winning a preliminary race on Saturday, McQueen was leading the main event on Sunday when his transaxle blew up.

Photo: A Personal Passion for Le Mans 5

McQueen on the set of Le Mans with the likes of Gérard Larrousse, David Piper, Derek Bell, Herbert Linge, and others.

On March 1st, 1970 at Phoenix International Raceway, McQueen dominated the race in the repaired Porsche, lapping the entire field at least once and placing first overall ahead of many cars with much larger engines. This put him in the lead in points for the SCCA’s Class A Sports Racing Championship. It also assured him a license to compete in international races under the FIA’s auspices.

Whether McQueen would be allowed to race or even to practice at Le Mans was still up in the air. But at home, in a shorter event, the option of competing was available. He seized it with both hands. Solar entered the Porsche for the Sebring 12-Hour Race on March 21st, 1970. McQueen knew the historic track; in 1962 he had raced an Austin-Healey Sprite in the three-hour race there, placing ninth among 22 finishers. Competing creditably at Sebring would go a long way toward convincing the Le Mans organizers that he was competent to drive in their doubly long event.

Meanwhile, McQueen recalled, “I was itching to get back on a two-wheeler, so I headed down to Lake Elsinore for the annual race.” Working his way into the top ten riders with his Husqvarna during the first three laps, McQueen was caught out on the fourth. Stumbling into a too-deep dip in a gully, his bike threw him over its handlebars and into the crowd. Though he felt pain in his left foot, McQueen climbed back on and finished the race—still in the top ten. “But,” he admitted, “I messed up my foot doing it.” Broken in six places, the foot was placed in a cast. Sebring was two weeks away.

Working with his doctor, McQueen tried several types of casts and shoes during that fortnight. “At Willow,” he said, “in plaster, I was only five seconds off my lap times, but I smashed the cast due to the seventy-pound push on the clutch. I went to a place where they make braces for amputees and had a rig with chrome leg bracings set up for me.” This wasn’t the answer, either. The final choice was a special reinforced boot over the cast with sandpaper on the bottom to give a good grip on the clutch pedal. McQueen dubbed the bulky contraption “my Frankenstein boot.”

Photo: A Personal Passion for Le Mans 6

Herbert Linge and Jonathan Williams, drivers of McQueen’s camera car, were surprised to learn that they’d finished in the top ten.

For Sebring, Jabby Crombac again came into the picture. The Frenchman recommended Peter Revson as co-driver. The handsome Revlon cosmetics heir had raced in a variety of genres in the 1960s from a spell in Formula One to drives at Indianapolis and in GT40s. Fast and competent, unfazed by celebrity, he ideally complemented McQueen both personally and professionally. Managed by Lotus veteran Andrew Ferguson, their pit was guarded by “policemen packing Colts, who had to hold back his female fans,” said one of his mechanics. “I’ve never been so well protected while tinkering with a racing car.”

Although McQueen had his license to race, he now had to convince the Sebring officials that he could drive safely with a broken foot. “The Sebring observers watched me like hawks when I practiced,” he said. “When they saw I could handle the car okay, they qualified me for the race. But it was close. I almost didn’t make it.” His practice times were two to three seconds off those of Revson. Their best lap in practice was only 15th fastest but almost a second and a half quicker than the fastest of three other 908s entered.

With four Porsche 917s entered against four Ferraris 512Ss, the Sebring winner was expected to come from one of these powerful 5.0-liter cars. The rough Sebring airport track served up some surprises. The big Porsches ran into wheel-bearing trouble; the best finished only fourth. Meanwhile, Steve McQueen took the first two stints in the Flounder, determined to put his foot to the test.

“On the first lap, the cast broke again,” said McQueen. “I didn’t let anybody know it ’cause they would have pulled me for sure. But I didn’t count on its hurting as much as it did. I knew I was on the verge of passing out, so I brought ’er in and handed over to Pete. They packed my foot in ice. I drank about a gallon of Gatorade, had the cast retaped, and was ready to go again in just over an hour.” Said Kyle Given in Car and Driver, “The actor, Steve McQueen, is surprising everyone. Driving a less-powerful Porsche 908 with Peter Revson and hampered by a broken left foot, McQueen is still hanging in there.”

Photo: A Personal Passion for Le Mans 7

A small panel gave the driver toggle-switch control over his three cameras.

By one-third of the race, the white #48 Porsche was running fifth. This was “to everyone’s astonishment” in one report and “impressive, surprising” in another. When McQueen handed the car to Revson to take the final double stint at the tenth hour, they were running in second place. “Pete got us into first, driving brilliantly,” said his co-driver. They inherited the lead from Ferrari drivers Mario Andretti and Arturo Merzario, who were leading by eleven laps into the last two hours when their transmission broke. Undaunted, Andretti took over the third-place sister Ferrari and powered it into the lead, passing the Solar Porsche.

More drama lay just ahead. With a mere five minutes left, Andretti rolled into the pits—out of fuel. As he rocketed back on the track, Revson came into view at the far end of the pits. After twelve hours of see-sawing fortunes, Andretti saved the day for Ferrari by 22 seconds, virtually a dead-heat in endurance-racing terms. “All the leaders lost much time during this race with various pit stops,” said Motor Sport, “except the McQueen/Revson car, whose creditable second place came through steady, consistent driving.” Over the twelve hours, Revson drove some 90 minutes more than McQueen.

Solar’s Porsche placed first in the Group 6 Sports Prototype class and second overall, adding to Porsche’s points for the World Manufacturers’ Championship and helping it win the championship in 1970. This was the closest race ever in Sebring’s history and the best place ever for a 908 in the Sebring twelve hours. Mario Andretti said of the race, “I never drove so hard in my life, not even when I won Indy. This was the toughest race I’ve run, and I’m lucky to have taken it.” Added Andretti, “McQueen did a good job, but Peter, he was fantastic.”

The Porsche people were impressed with McQueen. One tribute came from mechanic, Gerd Schmid. “He acted like the boy next door,” said Schmid, “and he loved Porsches with his heart and soul.” “I believe that the night after Sebring McQueen was the happiest man in the world,” said Rico Steinemann. “For the man who represents a dream, a dream had come true. It was real. No double and no stuntmen. Makeup men could stay home. The perspiration, grime, and rumpled hair were for real. The representative of a world of illusion had conquered reality.” This was a rewarding review for a man who turned 40 three days after Sebring.

Photo: A Personal Passion for Le Mans 8

The camera car had two cameras at the rear, above the transaxle, giving a total of 12 minutes of film.

A week before Sebring, the Le Mans entry list was published. Among the Porsche 917s was one entered by the Gulf-backed John Wyer team to be driven by Steve McQueen with Jackie Stewart as his co-driver. Scotsman Stewart was the reigning F1 World Champion, so it was a consummate coup for McQueen to have negotiated his participation. This entry represented the highest level of ambition for McQueen both as a racing driver and in the realization of his film of the Le Mans race. “We’ll be driving one of the fastest sports cars in all the world,” he was quoted, “and we think we have a good chance to take home all the marbles.”

McQueen’s immediate goal was to drive his 908 in the pre-Le Mans test days on the weekend of April 11th-12th. After initial changes were made at the Ginther facility in Culver City, the car was shipped to France to a Solar Productions base at Le Mans. There they modified the 908 into a camera car during the test weekend.

Filming on the Le Mans test weekend was unproductive with few cars taking part and steady rain marring visual opportunities. McQueen was present, in a flat cap against the downpour, but not driving. His hopes of taking part, even in practice, were dashed. When he heard of the Le Mans entry Gordon Stulberg of Cinema Center Films was appalled. “He’s absolutely out of his mind!” he erupted. “We simply cannot allow this. We’ll cancel the production immediately unless he reverses his position.”

The facts of life were spelled out to McQueen in a personal letter from Cinema Center that forbade his competing in the Le Mans 24 Hours. “Knowing that he would have no chance of refinancing the film with another company,” wrote McQueen biographer William F. Nolan, Steve “was forced to withdraw his Le Mans entry. In a cold rage, he refused to discuss the matter publicly with friends or associates.”

Photo: A Personal Passion for Le Mans 9

McQueen kills time on set while perched on the doorsill of his character’s #20 917 KH.

At the Le Mans test weekend it was known that McQueen would not be competing. “They had six million at stake,” McQueen said of his backers. “I couldn’t argue with a figure like that, so I withdrew my entry.” Cinema Center agreed to fund the running of the camera-equipped Flounder in the race and also to allow him to do his own Porsche 917 driving in the film’s post-Le Mans production.

Drawing on April’s experience, the rear cameras were repositioned for the race. Added just before the race, a new nose profile was the factory’s update for the Flounder body, given a pronounced splitter lip around the bottom of the nose, closest to the ground. A fresh 3.0-liter flat-eight engine to the standard of the new 908/03 was installed.

The 38th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans took place on June 13th-14th, 1970. Solar’s Porsche was driven by factory driver/mechanic Herbert Linge. His co-driver was Briton Jonathan Williams, one of the many pilots hired by McQueen and Solar to take part in the film’s production. Chiefly known for his successes in Formulas Two and Three, Williams recalled that “the Automobile Club de l’Ouest didn’t like the idea of having a camera car in the race one bit. It only allowed us to start after considerable argument by the film’s backer, Solar Productions, and numerous technical inspections.”

Having heard how nice the 908/02 was to drive, Jonathan Williams was dismayed by his first experience in the car. As related in “French Kiss with Death” by Michael Keyser, “He quickly found the 908 to be very squirrelly, giving the impression that one of the rear tires was going flat. He was unable to say for certain if this sorry state of affairs was due to the aerodynamics, which was something of a gray area in those days, or to the considerable extra weight of the three cameras. Probably a bit of both.”

Porsche veteran Herbert Linge took the first driving stint, instructed to keep all the cameras running during his first lap. This required an immediate pit stop for installation of cameras with fresh film, their quick-change mounts making this the easiest way to make the switch. After that the drivers were told to use the cameras selectively as they saw opportunities.

“After a couple of hours I took over,” said Williams. “It required a lot of concentration in the rear-view mirrors, as with the random stops it was nearly impossible to know where one was in track position with respect to the fast traffic, whereas in a usual racing situation one’s mental picture of events around the track was usually reliable. Later on it started to rain, which continued through the night, at times heavily, making conditions treacherous.” In fact, he aquaplaned into the Armco in one set of turns but fortunately with only moderate damage on the left side.

The net effect of a delay for repairs to the starter motor and the stops for fresh film kept the Solar Porsche from being classified as a finisher in 1970. Only the top seven places were so confirmed, the Solar entry being ninth on distance. It covered 3,798 kilometers, or 2,360 miles, at an average speed of 98.33 mph. The race was often wet and gloomy. That the 908’s handling problems were resolved was suggested by the car’s successful run under difficult conditions.

Accumulating more than 250,000 feet (47.3 miles!) of film, the Porsche’s activity contributed significantly to the success of the film Le Mans, which racing enthusiasts rate highly in spite of the ludicrously exaggerated length of the last lap. The 1970 race itself was a benefit for Porsche, which took away all possible prizes and categories, including the outright win, the company’s first.

“In the many weeks of post-race production on the circuit,” recalled Jonathan Williams, “Steve did all his own driving in the film in ‘his’ Gulf Porsche 917, not an easy car by any means, the only actor to do so. He desperately wanted to be accepted by the ‘real’ drivers. He needn’t have worried as we realized at once that here was someone who could drive at our level without taking any risks. You could trust him completely not to do anything foolish. There is no doubt that had he chosen to do so, he could have made a living as a race driver.”

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