McQueen actor

Actors on track

"I'm not sure whether I'm an actor who races, or a racer who acts"

Steve McQueen blurred the lines between acting and racing as efficiently as he blurred the photographs of keen fans trying to capture him at over 200mph.

Of course, he was not the only one. Actors often have a stab at being a racing driver, and they conjure up some success with that second ‘career’. But two actors really stand out when it comes to iconic big-screen stars with the talent to justify being on a race grid. One’s McQueen, the other is Paul Newman. We’ve featured both before. Of the two, it should arguably be Newman that takes the top step of the racer-actor podium, with more impressive real life successes including a class win at the Daytona 24 when he was 70 years old. But McQueen’s role as Michael Delaney in Le Mans often cements him as top dog in polls around the internet.

It’s probably why Disney Pixar chose ‘McQueen’ as their lead character’s surname in the Cars series of films, too. ‘Lightning Newman’ is perhaps crossed out in a notebook somewhere.

McQueen actor

But there are more – so many more. James Dean. James Garner… In this modern era we have Patrick Dempsey, who found fame playing Derek Shepherd (aka McDreamy) in hit US show Grey’s Anatomy whilst also tackling Hollywood, not only racing competitively at Le Mans but doing so with his own race team. And, closer to home, the likes of soap star Kelvin Fletcher and former Boyzone member Shane Lynch (ok not famously an actor, but he was in a TV show called Dream Team a few times so let me have this one) have tried their hand at motorsport and found themselves grinning in their helmets – albeit only really winning in lower-spec race series’ rather than ones where their competitors got a bit more professional.

Heck, even Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air – Alfonso Ribeiro – has won races on four wheels. Google it.

Ajith Kumar (known by fans as Thala) is incredibly popular in his homeland of India following some big movies in the late ’90s, and found his way onto the Formula Two grid in 2010, where he was shown to be little more than just a backmarker. But at least he was there. Fighting against some top names in motorsport cuts him some slack – but he was not going to carry on to compete at Le Mans, like Newman.

What do you think prepares actors for the world of motorsport? Could it be hanging around stunt drivers? Could it be the chance of driving fast cars on camera helps them discover a hidden talent? Maybe higher-than-normal wages plus a large existing fanbase/audience helps with the funding needed to get on track?

A lot of readers will probably, at some point, have fancied themselves as a bit of racer, but found the barriers overwhelming. Funding, of course, is a major one. Even with great gateways into motorsport from the likes of Caterham’s Academy and the Radical SR1 Cup etc you still need tens of thousands of spare coins in the bank. Ginetta’s Want2Race gives a slightly cheaper way but with no guarantee you’ll actually ever race.

I’m going a bit off topic here – but it shows that maybe actors can overcome that big hurdle – because fame often comes with fortune, too. And even if they haven’t got oodles of disposable income, their large audience can often mean sponsors are keen to have an association with their racing efforts, and the money comes from there instead.

McQueen and Newman, however, didn’t rely on sponsors. The cars they drove may well have had logos on, but not just because the actors were there. It’s not like McQueen and Newman engaged in Instagram podium selfies to millions of fans, is it? For me, this makes their route into motorsport much less about getting money and sponsors, and much more about genuinely incredible levels of talent that meant race teams wanted them in their cars. It has to be said, though, they did often do a much smaller stint in the car than their pro-driver teammates, but still, you have to keep it pointing the right way and do so at very scary speeds.

McQueen famously said “I’m not sure whether I’m an actor who races, or a racer who acts”. Maybe his best results were never realised as he passed away at just 50 years of age – an age at which Newman had only just started to race. Could he have gone on to win a great race? Perhaps by sharing a car at Le Mans with two talented pro drivers he might have done.

But then, maybe, just maybe, Alfonso Ribeiro could, too.

Actor racer Alfonso Ribeiro