Few had heard of the American film actor driving a borrowed car at Brands Hatch, but with one sparkling drive he gave notice of his other passion
Words: Gordon Cruichshank
Film star, racing driver — it could have gone either way. Steve McQueen had talent in both arenas. But before he smouldered into the British consciousness on screen, he shouldered himself into the racing press with a blistering race in a borrowed Mini.
If you went to the BRSCC Brands Hatch October meet in 1961 you could be pretty sure one of the 3.8 Jaguars would run off with the touring car race. But reading that soon-to-be saloon car champion Sir John Whitmore, now uncatchable for the title, had loaned his Mini to a US film actor might have puzzled you. What could some Yank have to prove?
In fact McQueen was already racing motorcycles on dirt in the USA and had raced an Austin A40 at OuIton Park. “He was no chicken in a car,” says Sir John. “He’d had coaching at Brands Hatch and had driven a Formula Junior Cooper.”
McQueen, in Britain to film The Great Escape, often stayed with Whitmore, who got to know him well. “As a guest he was fine and fun; as a person, he was his own man and was not impressed by traditional habits or the expectations of others.” Whitmore’s loan of his title-winning car would be a perfect chance to compare himself against drivers in similar mounts.
Inevitably the Jaguars sprinted away, but it was the laggard of the big class which sparked a fracas among the one-litres by bottling them up. Vic Elford was part of the Mini gang. “We were all being held up by Alan Fraser in a Sunbeam Rapier; he was the slowest of the big-engined cars and we couldn’t get round him.” For lap after lap the five Minis of Elford, McQueen, Christabel Carlisle, Mick Clare and Kenny Lall practically fell over each other to get past, the lead changing corner by corner. Carlisle led, harried by McQueen, but Elford gradually disposed of Clare, Lall, McQueen and finally the lady. But while the Minis were all over him on the bends, the Rapier’s bigger engine kept him ahead. The commentator was going wild over what was, let’s face it, the battle for fifth place, but Elford was getting wound up. “Eventually I went balls-out right round the outside of him at Surtees and then became a mobile chicane up Hawthorn’s Hill. Once on the twisty stuff I could leave him, and Christabel and Steve got round him too.”
Elford’s strategy kept him ahead of the one-litre gang, but the American wasn’t giving up. He made one final lunge to pass Carlisle — unsuccessful. But with the crowd on its feet for most of the race, the frantic commentator called the Mini battlers to the podium alongside puzzled winner Mike Parkes, who hadn’t seen the drama behind. There can’t have been many occasion when drivers who placed fifth, sixth and seventh were invited to do a lap of honour and enjoy the horn-tooting applause.
Whitmore handed over the cup, and applauded his protégé. “He was very pleased — at least as pleased as a perfectionist could be.” It confirmed the actor’s innate talent. Elford, who got to know McQueen well when both later raced Porsches, has no doubts. “He was quick — he could have chosen to be a racing driver. Mind you, he made a bit more money in films.”