Le Mans – a new take

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Steve McQueen’s son Chad sheds more light on his father’s Le Mans

Predictably, motor sport played a fairly major part in the life of young Chad McQueen. In fact, so too did Motor Sport.

Son of full-time actor, equal-time racing driver Steve McQueen, a love of speed, Porsches and racing was going to be inevitable. The clearest indication of this education came in 1970 in north-western France on the set of Le Mans, his father’s magnum opus. Allowed by his parents to visit France from America, Chad spent a summer on set surrounded by some of the greatest racing drivers and machines not only of the era but also of all time.

“I didn’t give a shit about Dr. Seuss,” Chad says. “All I wanted to read was things like Motor Sport.

“So when I got to Arnage and Indianapolis corner and there was all of the cars lined up and a group of drivers, I knew every one of them by name. I was only 10 years old. That meant something to me; I knew there was Jean-Pierre Jabouille, there was David Piper and everyone. It was something else to see them in the flesh.”

Likewise for the cars, which certainly weren’t your usual fare – and no second-tier replacements like those used in other Hollywood films. Genuine 917s, T70s and 512s were tearing around the roads of Le Mans purely for the benefit of his father’s realistic, unprecedented, avant garde film.

Just months before, those same cars and drivers had shared the track with Steve McQueen at Sebring. Partnered with Peter Revson, the pairing finished second after losing the lead late on to Mario Andretti. “That Sebring race very important to him,” Chad says. “The entry list was a who’s who of motor racing, people like Pedro Rodríguez and François Cevert. That was his training ground for Le Mans, but to finish so high up was extraordinary. It gave him some street cred.”

Nearly 50 years on he’s recalling these seared-on memories for good reason: the documentary The Man and Le Mans has finally made its way to DVD. Produced by Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna it reveals a backstory of “obsession, betrayal and vindication”, as Clarke brilliantly describes it. Well known, maybe, but the dark shadow that hung over the film is shown here in a stark light.

Some one million feet of film was used to record Le Mans, which leaves reels and reels of unused but no less spectacular on-track footage as Clarke found. “We uncovered fresh archive film, like the rushes, that had never been seen before,” he claims. “The crew’s work at Le Mans was just incredible, that’s hopefully the legacy of our documentary – we rediscovered this footage. Some of the shots that you’re able to see, the long shot from Jonathan Williams’ camera car going through the start…”

“With Cevert behind him?” chimes in an impassioned Chad. “I had never seen that. That was just beautiful.”

The authenticity of the film Le Mans is mirrored in The Man and Le Mans, as Chad explains.I didn’t realise what Gabriel was doing – I would go through town and go ‘F***, this looks familiar’. He took me through the town on the same exact route my dad drove. I know my parents were going through their own shit, but that didn’t affect me and they didn’t let me know about it. It was nothing but a great time.”

It must have been a difficult watch and to be a part of at times for McQueen, his family was at breaking point, his father’s film similarly teetering on the brink of collapse and drivers risking their lives for it. But he maintains it was “a joy to go over it all again.”

The authenticity reaches a peak when McQueen looks over old proofs and dailies from the film, and his dad’s notes on Grand Prix.  “That was all their idea. I sat down, they rolled the camera and they said ‘hey, take a look at this.’ It was all typical of my dad; he was so honest with his critique of Grand Prix.

“Gabe did the same with Dave Piper, he didn’t know – and I didn’t for that matter – that my dad wanted the premiere proceeds to go to Dave.”

The cast and Chad had been made to watch Grand Prix while in Le Mans, to show what McQueen wanted not to do, in a small camp close to the circuit.

“Gabriel took me back to where we used to sit and watch. I had never wanted to go back to Le Mans; I didn’t want it to be ruined for me. But when this came up I couldn’t wait to go and I’m glad I did. The memories, like when we shot at Maison Blanche – I hadn’t been there for 45 years.”

But there’s still no confirmation on McQueen’s rumoured night-time stint during the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans. “There was an article in Motor Sport that somebody had written in saying that he was in the pits next to my dad in a 911S, I’d heard it time and time again but I can’t confirm it.

“My mum doesn’t know. All I know is it sounds like something my dad would do…”

Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play

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