McQueen and Le Mans

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“I remember the first time I raced. I was very frightened and scared,” Steve McQueen said. “And I didn’t like the idea of being frightened, and I wanted to overcome it.”

What resulted was McQueen’s love of racing and the desire to make the ultimate racing movie.

And then came Grand Prix. McQueen was originally to star, but after a disagreement with a producer, he dropped out. James Garner took his place, and it caused a rift between them, which was awkward given that they were neighbors (read about that here).

McQueen attempted to make his racing movie later on with director John Sturges’ help, but a canceled movie deal meant that their project, then called Day of the Champion, never got off the ground.

But the success of Bullitt gave McQueen his chance, and the joke was that the studio would greenlight the phone book if the star was attached.

“I race motorcars because I enjoy it. I like the competitive element. I like beating the other guy. I do enjoy the feeling of power,” Steve McQueen said.

Sturges and Steve teamed again, feeling comfortable since they had worked on other films together. In fact, Le Mans, like their prior movie The Great Escape, began production without a finished script. The working title was 24 Hours of Le Mans.

A production note reads: “We have to reach high in a picture like Le Mans, or there is no purpose in making it.”

Originally, the idea was to film McQueen while he participated in the complete 24 hour Le Mans race. However, money constraints and the fear that McQueen could get injured vetoed this plan.

Nevertheless, the production did film at the race and incorporated that footage into the final movie.

At the time, racing was even more dangerous, and it wasn’t uncommon for there to be deaths at a race.

“You are sitting in a motor car that maybe has 600 horse power and 30 gallons of gasoline. So you know that if you crash in this vehicle, on impact this could be disastrous,” McQueen said. “You don’t have time to make two decisions. You have time only to make one, and it must be right.”

Perhaps more dangerous though were script troubles. The production first focused on filming the races, but eventually, the plot became a sticking point that resulted in Sturges being replaced by Lee Katzin.

McQueen envisioned his character as losing the race in order to allow him to give him more dramatic acting range. But when there was push-back, it was decided to film a key moment two different ways in order to give them options later on.

Unfortunately, while filming the second time, stunt driver, David Piper, lost control of his car and crashed. Given his injuries, it was necessary to amputate his leg, and McQueen felt personally responsible.

“It was a film that took us four months to shoot and it was very difficult. And we had a couple of very bad accidents. It was the most difficult film I’ve ever done,” McQueen said.

After the accident, McQueen and the team finalized the outline and set out to finish their movie as a tribute to the racing community that they so respected.

Le Mans is close to me. I love motor racing,” McQueen remembered. “And we all hope it turns out well.”

McQueen also made a special request to the studio – asking that all the proceeds for the first premiere of the film go to David Piper, the injured stunt driver.

McQueen wrote: “I do think we owe this to racing for what they gave this film.”

Le Mans also includes this note in the finished film: "And special appreciation to David Piper for his sacrifice during the filming of this picture."