Search
  • brgmultimedia

MARIO ANDRETTI, STEVE McQUEEN AND MOTOR RACING IN THE MOVIES

By Joe Scalzo


Joe Scalzo is an award-winning automotive journalist, historian and author who was one of the best-known writers in America on all aspects of motor sport during the 1970s and 1980s.We are pleased indeed that Joe has agreed to contribute to Classic Wheels from his back catalogue of features.


Racking up ridiculous risks, clocking catastrophic chances, Mario Andretti spent his unequaled career collecting the World Championship of Formula One, the US national title of Indycars, both the Indy and Daytona 500 Miles racer, and the mountain climb up the dirt road of 14,000ft high Pikes Peak. Plus, way back in 1970, winning his favorite race of them all - the Sebring 12 Hours, the amazing sports car enduro where, Mario memorably exclaimed to me after the race, “ I took more risks and chances than I would in three Grands Prix!” All because of a Hollywood movie actor named Steve McQueen.


Prior to Sebring, Mario probably never had met McQueen. But finding himself racing at Sebring against somebody who was to him just some Hollywood actor – and whose car was, to make things worse, leading the race - was an embarrassment to Mario – a giant one.


Particularly because McQueen’s name was getting championed and chanted over the public-address; and also because the actor’s racing car was an elderly Porsche that was no great chariot of beauty or speed; and, furthermore, because McQueen was, incredibly, blowing off Sebring’s usual international field, which included a full team of works Ferrari drivers, captained by Mario; and finally in the most acutely embarrassing insult of all -- McQueen, an erratic desert bike racer, had, just prior the 12 Hours, taken yet another spill, broken more bones , and was being forced to brake and double-clutch with his left ankle imprisoned in a cast! It was all too much, and Mario already could predict the likely newspaper headlines - “HOLLYWOOD ACTOR WITH BROKEN FOOT BEATS ANDRETTI.”


McQueen’s co-driver was Peter Revson, ordinarily one of world sports car racing’s fastest players, but who now - with most of the Sebring race behind him - was in a growing state of fatigue. And he had a right to be, because he was almost racing the 12 Hours in iron man style. The plan was to have Revson drive nine of the 12 hours and McQueen three. McQueen had to be kept out of the Porsche for as long as possible, because whenever the actor strapped himself in. handicapped by his broken foot, lap times slowed down by as much as 20 seconds.


The only reason Revson and McQueen were leading at all was because Mario’s works Ferrari, the fastest car at Sebring, had been retired with mechanical problems. Then, finally, Mario – reduced to spectating from the pits - had been unable to control his embarrassment any longer. Jumping into the Ferrari of two slower teammates, he tore out of the pits and went on a win-it-or wear-it mission hunting down the rattletrap Porsche of the exhausted Revson - which he quickly found and destroyed; then sped on to win the 12 hours. It was a lucky thing for Mario that Sebring was an airstrip, with wide flat corners lined by rubber cones, because he’d have never survived racing that way on, say, the Nurburgring.


Steve McQueen (1930-1980), who had starred in three hits, The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, and Bullitt was in Sebring gathering up hands-on knowledge to use for his upcoming film Le Mans, a semi- documentary based on events that McQueen had personally witnessed at the real 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1969, when the great enduro had experienced one of its closest finishes in history. Racing was McQueen’s passion and he was obsessed not only with making Le Mans but starring in it. Filming was scheduled to start in June, a couple of months after the Sebring 12 Hours. Not since the 1920s and the silent era of Wallace Reid had any actor been as obsessed with motor racing as McQueen.


“Obsessed” truly was what McQueen was. Determined to make a really authentic movie about racing --it would be Hollywood’s first ever – he had shunned John Frankenheimer’s offer to appear in Grand Prix, Frankenheimer’s own racing film, because he didn’t think Frankenheimer knew enough about racing to be accurate and probably would imitate the most copied racing film ever made – and in a format made over and over. This was, The Crowd Roars which established an abominable formula for all Hollywood motor racing movies - its top ten ingredients being:

  1. A root-and-gouge finish complete with wheels flying off, tires flattening, mechanical trauma popping loose – all on a race’s last lap.

  2. A fire. Racing cars suddenly flaming and then detonating, ka-boom!

  3. Disposable stiffs who wouldn’t live to the last reel. Future corpses with such lovable nicknames as Spud, Breezy and Happy. All doomed!

  4. Dumbbells whose survival depends on talismans -- baby shoes, lucky scarves, etc. that they forget to carry with them.

  5. Plus, adorable old strokers married to worshipful wives with cuddly children.

  6. Grudge races between brothers if possible, or at least feuding best friends

  7. Tin-ear dialogue. “Drinking? He’s racing at Ascot tonight…”

  8. Women from hell, the curse of a Hollywood racing driver’s existence. Jezebels who jump bones. Harpies who harangue him silly. And sob sisters who persecute him with their preaching.

  9. A scheming and sensationalistic press corps.

  10. A blood-lusting, ghoulish crowd going hysterical in the grandstands.

And finally, a happy ending despite Nos 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10!



Now nearly an ancient nine decades old, The Crowd Roars in its original 1932 version, used to turn up occasionally on late night TV, often the evening before the Indy 500. Devotees of classic movies still enjoy it because it features Howard Hawks and James Cagney, both near the starts of their directorial and acting careers. Neither man is at his best, nor is racing, but that’s to be expected: Hollywood lore has it that the script for Crowd was originally about prize-fighting, or maybe it was the carnie life in the circus.


Cagney is Joe Greer, a frightening egomaniac and woman-hater who barks out commands like, “Watch him cut this guy off, I taught him that!” and gets barked back in return by Ann Divorak and, especially, by Joan Blondell - who, in retaliation, Cagey hauls around by the scruff of her neck. But you have to sympathize with Cagney. The pair of women are intense and unrelenting scolds as when Divorak unloads on Cagney with both barrels saying “You can’t take the roar of the crowd to the bank and cash it.” Her lecturing helps drive him onto the sauce.


And it sets the stage for the film’s big scene at Legion Ascot Speedway the now long-defunct speedbowl in LA. Cagney and his adoring younger brother, played by Eric Linden, get sideways with each other and fall into Hollywood’s prototypical grudge race. A kindly has-been and family friend named Spud Connor, played by Frank McHugh, attempts to break it up by getting between the antagonistic Greers on track.


Spud is a real piece of work. In addition to the lovable name, he has a worshipful wife, a cuddly infant son, and, on this particular evening, has forgotten to carry his lucky baby shoes. In other words, the poor guy is marked four ways, and when Cagney, in a boozy rage, spears him in the tail, Spud goes up in flame with his distraught wife caterwauling her husband’s nickname.


In the aftermath of Spud’s death, Cagney abandons the game, temporarily disappearing. When he resurfaces, at Indy, for the 500, he has become a guilt- ravaged drunk who’s so down-and-out he won’t even take the trouble to shave. He does, though, get to race in the 500, but under harrowing circumstances: as the race unfolds he must steer through a holocaust. Because he fears fire, Cagney’s foot uncontrollably comes off the throttle and his two-man car, in the lead, slows.


This is the signal for Eric Linden, now serving as his brother’s riding mechanic – the Greers have made up – to save the hour by mashing his own foot hard on the pedal. So, they win Indy. Then they crash on their victory lap and the film concludes with the brothers racing each other to the hospital in competing crash- wagons.


The brother vs. brother theme invented in Crowd perfectly followed Rule no. 3 in The Big Wheel. Steve Brody, as a buzzbomb-racing clone of Spud Connor, with the horrifying nickname of “Happy” follows the ‘disposable stiff’ role to perfection.


The 1932 version of The Crowd Roared was re-shot in 1937 and released as The Roar of the Crowd, starring a pious- faced Howard Duff, and two years later, in 1939, it was duplicated as Indianapolis Speedway, with Pat O’Brien and John Payne in the Cagney and Linden roles, and Frank McHugh back as ultimate loser Spud.


The Racers has Cesar Romero cast as a euro-style Spud – but without the corny Yank nickname. Instead he is ‘Carlos Chavez’ – but is still the ultimate loser.


Meantime, exactly like Cagney, Divorak, and Blondell in Crowd (Rule no. 8), all the assorted she-devils are busting the chops of all the racing drivers - and often getting the same treatment in return: Clark Gable unloads on Barbara Stanwyck in To Please A Lady ( 1950) and Kirk Douglas gives Bella Darvi a belt in The Racers (1955) – in the process exposing himself to a blistering lecture about manhood from Katy Jurago.


Between fights, everybody is hot to trot with everyone else. In Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix bomb {1966), James Garner puts Brian Bedford on his head and in the hospital and then makes off with Bedford’s wife, Jessica Walters. Similarly, in The Racers, one of Kirk Douglas’s own teammates wants to bed down with Douglas’s Bella Darvi - which is an activity engaged in by Robert Wagner and Joanne Woodward in Winning (1969) leaving Paul Newman cuckolded.


Everybody cools off in time for happy endings, though not without difficulties. To win back Stanwyck, Gable must show his sensitivity by somersaulting his own Indy car to give another car room; and, in order to prove to Darvi that he has a conscience, Douglas must stop on the racing track to come to the aid of an injured colleague. Adulterous Jessica Walters, on the other hand, demands macho, not soft-heartedness.


But banged-up Brian Bedford finally replaces James Garner as the object of her affections, though only while doped up on pain killers.

Versions of the skittish finish of Crowd (Rule no. 1) were written into Born To Speed (1948), Grand Prix (1966), and McQueen’s own Le Mans (1972).The great fire (rule no.2) turns up in Le Mans, The Big Wheel, Race For Life (1954), and in the 1990 stock car turkey Days Of Thunder, though with a modern twist. Just like James Cagney in Crowd, Tom Cruise loses his will to race, which he must restore by blasting through an inferno.

Unlike Cagney, Cruise lacks the companionship of a ride-along mechanic to hammer the throttle for him, so the hour is saved by Cruise’s chief mechanic Robert Duval radioing courage-inspiring instructions from the pits. Thunder lacks a dueling ambulance battle for its ending, but the omission is overcome early in the filming when a wounded Cruise and his pal Michael Roker engage in a race in wheelchairs.


Rule no. 9 is about the press getting turned into a mob of mad-dog monsters. Against many contenders, Barbara Stanwyck, femme news hawk in To Please A Lady muck-rakes and temporarily ruins Clark Gable’s career.


And the paparazzi of Grand Prix chase everybody so relentlessly that Eva Marie Saint, mistress of Yves Montand, almost suffers a nervous breakdown when Yves buys the farm. “This is what you come for!” she explodes at all the blood-sucking scribblers and photos, holding up gore-dripping hands.


Jessica Walters, Brian Bedford’s two-timing bimbo in Grand Prix, is in essential agreement. She finds the press corps as despicable as “the crowd that comes to see somebody get killed.” Ann Divorak got that ball rolling in Crowd, deploring the folks in the grandstands as “watching for wrecks, roaring for blood!”


So Hollywood has been rubbishing racing for years but it’s also been a matter of what comes around, goes around. Judging by many of those actors who got too caught up in it, racing probably is an activity to be avoided.


James Dean and his Porsche Spyder go hurtling across Route 46 for a 1955 California sports car meet in Salinas and instead dies crashing into Donald Turnipseed at the Route 41 crossroads…


Wallace Reid, handsome devil and morphine addict, makes hundreds of silent shorts, many about racing. He buys a Duesenberg; decides he wants to be a racing driver himself, and his studios barely stop him from entering in the Indy 500. As a real-life epilogue, Reid gets stuck in a morphine-addiction ward and dies raving mad…and Steve McQueen, obsessed with making Le Mans the first authentic racing movie, loses his marriage and tarnishes his career.


Filming of Le Mans began with McQueen working with 175 technicians, 18 multi-crew cameras, 26 racing cars and a $7.5 million budget – big bucks for a movie of this era-- for McQueen to spend. Right away McQueen made two things very clear: all racing shots had to be filmed at racing speeds and he insisted on performing most of the driving himself. Half a dozen movie cars immediately got wrecked, at $75,000 per wreck (though not with the star at the wheel).

He owned full artistic control of Le Mans so no studio could force McQueen to incorporate Crowd’s nine-point formula. But McQueen lacked a plot and script to hang together all his ever-accumulating thousands of feet of film footage of raw racing; so his money men were flying in to examine McQueen’s photography and chorusing “Great! But now what?” McQueen had no answer.


So, the inevitable occurred. Le Mans was costing $100-Gs a week, and insufficient progress was occurring. There still was no plot, no script. Following a series of tense meetings on the set, and amidst reports that McQueen was being replaced by Robert Redford, McQueen flew off to Morocco for a two-week breather. Returning, he agreed to forfeit all creative control of Le Mans. New directors and producers were recruited, and from then on everybody was saying let’s hose this dog down and go home. Following the picture’s wrap, McQueen was permitted no part in the post-production or screening. He wouldn’t even come to the premiere!


As a result, Le Mans was a mess. It obeyed most of the formula established by Crowd - about all it lacked were bed-hopping scenes with racing drivers jumping the bones of the wives of other racing drivers wives, the activity engaged in in Grand Prix and Winning.


But what a movie Le Mans might have made had it been about the actual filming of the movie itself! Everything came out in the memoirs of McQueen’s ex-wife Neile. According to her, the strain of Le Mans so debilitated McQueen that he was blowing off stress with a diet of cocaine and loose women. So, in an astonishing showdown between husband and wife, Neile, herself high-strung and sexy, erupted with a confession of a hot dalliance of her own with some dreamboat of a foreign actor. Which flipped out McQueen, utterly flipped him out. According to Neile’s memoirs, Steve pulled out a revolver, demanding the name of the lover so that he, McQueen could add him to the cast of Le Mans and involve him in a big, disfiguring, wreck!


The movie didn’t destroy McQueen’s acting career but it damaged it badly, and no studio ever conceded him full control of anything again. In May of 1972, Indianapolis was picked to premiere Le Mans. Certainly, the home of the Indy 500 was the worst city imaginable for a picture about sports car racing. And although McQueen may have boycotted the premier, Mario Andretti did not. For Mario never forgot the 1970 12 Hours of Sebring…


22 views