Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood at the 24 Hours of Le Mans


CENTENARY OF THE 24 HOURS – LE MANS, THE EXCEPTION ⎮ Did you know? The year 2023 will mark both the centenary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and of the « Hollywood Sign », the giant panel forming the name Hollywood installed on the hill overlooking the Los Angeles district dedicated to cinema. This double anniversary offers the perfect opportunity to reflect on the crossed destinies of two American icons of the big screen seen at Le Mans: Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.

The year 1968 marked a real turning point in their respective cinematographic and automotive careers. That year, Paul Newman played pilot Frank Capua in front of James Goldstone’s camera in turns, whose plot is set in the 1968 edition of the Indianapolis 500. At the same time, Steve McQueen created Solar, his own production company, and immediately signed a masterstroke with Bullitt. Directed by Briton Peter Yates, this urban thriller has gone down in history thanks to a chase sequence in the streets of San Francisco between a Ford Mustang driven by McQueen himself and a Dodge Charger in the hands of Bill Hickman, the America’s best car stuntman of the time. This sequence marks the spirits to the point that thereafter, the pursuit will become during the following decades a recurring element for any detective film shot in San Francisco.

Steve McQueen, Le Mans… from reality to fiction

But Steve McQueen like Paul Newman see far. In April 1969, the comedian revealed by the television series In the name of the law met during a visit to Le Mans Gonzague Mordret, Managing Director of the ACO at the time, then did some scouting during the 37th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Steve McQueen intends not only to produce and interpret a film on the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but also to participate in the race at the wheel of a Porsche 917, with none less than Jackie Stewart, the reigning Formula 1 world champion, as a teammate. But his insurers oppose it. The actor still contested the 12 Hours of Sebring in March 1970. After coming close to victory with Peter Revson, he finished second at the wheel of a Porsche 908 which would serve as a camera car during the 24 Hours three months later.

The film, simply titled Le Mans, has a difficult production. Between scenes filmed during the race and sequences reconstituted on the very scene of the action from June to November 1970, the director John Sturges, who had directed Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven and The great Escape, worried about a lack of script and ended up leaving the set, replaced by Lee H. Katzin. However, Steve McQueen does not look at the expense: Solar mobilizes around forty pilots, builds a village dedicated to production, hires the French composer Michel Legrand for the music. A commercial failure that almost ruined the actor when it was released in the spring of 1971, the film has become cult over the decades, in particular for the realism of the racing sequences, the reconstructions of which are filmed at real speed.

When Steve McQueen died on November 7, 1980 at only fifty years old, French television shook up its programs and broadcast Le Mans to pay homage to him.

Paul Newman, of turns at the Sarthe

During the 1970s, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman crossed paths on the same film set for the only time in their career for the disaster film The infernal tower (1974), one of the biggest commercial successes of this period.

At the same time, Paul Newman pursued a racing career in motorsport, which he had begun late in life after the filming of Virages. Between Trans Am (American grand touring sports car championship) and endurance, he finished fifth in the 1977 24 Hours of Daytona, then created a racing team in the CanAm Challenge, contested between Canada and the United States. Among its pilots is Keke Rosberg, future Formula 1 world champion.

Ten years after Steve McQueen’s first visit to La Sarthe to scout Le MansPaul Newman arrives in the Sarthe as a driver, at the wheel of a Porsche 935. He is associated with Dick Barbour, who enters the car, and Rolf Stommelen, eminent specialist of the Stuttgart manufacturer and poleman of the 1969 edition on Porsche 917.

The n°70 935 entered the top 10 from the second hour of the race, continued to make steady progress despite the rain that came to the 1979 24 Hours, and reached the top 5 in the tenth hour. Despite the infernal pressure that surrounds him, whether from the public or the media, Paul Newman has an exemplary race and at the fifteenth hour, the actor and his teammates settle in second position behind the another 935 from leaders Klaus Ludwig/Bill & Don Whittington. When the latter suffered an injection problem shortly before the finish, we even thought of a victory for the n°70, but this in turn was delayed by a faulty cylinder head gasket and finished the race at slow motion. For his only participation, Paul Newman finished second in the general classification and winner of his category, which the Porsche n°70 dominated almost from start to finish.

Subsequently, he joined forces with Carl Haas (unrelated to Gene Haas, owner of the eponymous F1 team), importer of Lola chassis in the United States, for the creation of the Newman-Haas single-seater team. American CART and Champ Car. This will play a fundamental role in the career of Manceau Sébastien Bourdais, titled four consecutive seasons from 2004 to 2007, thus joining the team’s prize list Mario Andretti and his son Michael, or the former Formula 1 world champion Nigel Mansel. A sign of a deep friendship, Paul Newman made one of his very last trips to Europe in May 2006 for the wedding of Sébastien Bourdais in Le Mans. Born on February 28, 1979, the latter was three and a half months old when the actor climbed on the second step of the podium at the 24 Hours.

At the same time, he pursued his brilliant film career, which brought him to the Oscar for Best Actor in 1987 for his role in the film The color of money by Martin Scorsese. His partner is Tom Cruise, another great fan of motor sports and speed. In 1995, the year of his 70th birthday, he finished on the third step of the podium at the 24 Hours of Daytona, where we find him again at the start ten years later (at 80, therefore!), in the company of Sébastien Bourdais and the Brazilian Bruno Junqueira, his two Champ Car drivers at that time.

A few weeks before his death on September 26, 2008, Paul Newman had offered himself one last motoring pleasure, by bringing together family, relatives and friends on the Lime Rock circuit, located about a hundred kilometers from his home in Westport, in the State of Connecticut.

PHOTOS: LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES, 24 HOURS OF LE MANS – FROM TOP TO BOTTOM (DR / ACO ARCHIVES): the Porsche of Paul Newman, Dick Barbour and Rolf Stommelen finished eight laps behind the winners; equipped with three cameras during the 1970 24 Hours for the film Le Mans, the Porsche 908 hired by Steve McQueen’s production company was driven by Herbert Linge and Jonathan Williams; Steve McQueen in 1970 on the 24 Hours circuit for the filming of Le Mans ; Paul Newman at the awards ceremony for the 1979 edition, where he put his name on the list for eternity.

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