SI Vault
Steve McQueen
August 08, 1966
Not so long ago, when I was broke but studying Stanislavsky in New York and trying to be an actor, I read a story in a fan magazine about a Hollywood star who had a terrible time deciding which of his cars to take to work. I got mad. Up to then the fanciest car I had owned was a hot rod that a pal and I had put together as teen-agers. In those days in southern California we had rods with Model A frames and Ford 60 engines with Edelbrock manifolds, and they accelerated like the J-2 Allards that some of the sports car people owned. Mine didn't handle, but it did have stark acceleration—when the engine stayed in it—and I always got goose pimples hearing one go up the street. Now that I can afford something better I don't get sore at stories about all the automobiles the stars own and the choices they have to make. But I still get the goose pimples.
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August 08, 1966

I Still Get Goose Pimples

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I was working in a television series called Wanted Dead or Alive, and the television people told me not to race. If I had gotten hurt the insurance company could have sued me for the price of the show. But the sport meant enough to me that I raced with that hanging over my head. I must say, when you are racing against somebody and he wants to win and you want to win, you find yourself thinking, "Christ, if I end up on my head, there goes the house and the car and everything else."

But I did pretty well and cooled the insurance company, and after the Porsche I had a Lotus LeMans Mark II. Then I took a picture that was to be made in England, The War Lover, because I wanted to learn more about motor racing. Motor racing in Europe is like studying medicine in Vienna. I scammed and shammed and used my juice as an actor to get a ride. I was a race bum. This was 1961, and I was driving underpowered little cars, but to me it was a big thing. Afterward I raced at Sebring and then back on the Coast.

The pictures were getting more difficult. They were better pictures, but harder parts. To be a race bum is marvelous, but I had to choose between cars and pictures, and I decided to quit racing. It was a sorrowful thing because I had been offered some pretty good rides.

I knew there was a great picture to be made about motor racing. We had had nothing in films but the guy who wanted to die or the guy holding the broken steering wheel in one hand while he was kissing the girl. It is not really quite that way. I am going to try to make a decent racing picture next year. It will be called Day of the Champion, and it will be about an American racing in Europe. He is not the world champion. He is a guy who has the handle of crashing. He has a psychological problem. He has the other problems submitted to human beings who put their lives on the line time after time. I think I can bring a little reality to it, and I think John Sturges is a good director.

I knew there was a picture there but for a long time I kind of held off. I thought maybe we weren't ready for it. Maybe I held off a little too long. When we started getting Le Mans Pontiacs and GTO Pontiacs and when John Cooper came to Indianapolis for the first time with a 1�-liter Climax and Jack Brabham made the fastest times through the corners in it, I knew the time was coming when we would be ready for a racing picture. We're ready now.

Riverside Raceway, a couple of traffic clots up the freeway from Los Angeles, has been ready for quite a while. Before I get to the cars, let me say two words about Riverside, where I drove them. Winning at Riverside is done on guts and a lot of horsepower, because you can win a race on horsepower down the one-mile back straightaway. The start-finish line is on a short straight. Turn One is an uphill left-hander, quite dangerous. You go into it blind, all the way over to the right, then cut to the left-hand side and come out sliding. Then you throw the car into opposite lock for a downhill right-hander, which is Turn Two. After that comes the Esses. Three is to the left, Four to the right and Five to the left again. Then you go uphill into Six, which is a right-hander with a tightening radius and a guardrail that is very inviting. Through the Esses maximum speed is about 125 mph. Six is a good bit slower—60 to 65. Seven is a downhill lefthander. Eight is a little right-hander, and then you set yourself up for the back straightaway. The fastest I've gone there is 157 in a Lola T-70. At the end of the straight is the ninth and last turn, a right-hander that keeps tightening up. As you come to the shutoff markers you set yourself all the way over to the left and start panic braking and shifting down. The turn goes downhill and sort of corkscrews. It is very easy to run out of road. Halfway through you have to give your car a jog and set it up again for the pit straight. It is a fast course, and there are not many places that you can afford to spin on it; you must respect it.

All right, the Ferrari. Bill Harrah was kind enough to send it down from Reno, and it was a wonderful car. With more inches than mine and a better power arc from its six-Weber carburetor—mine has three—I was pushing 140 mph. Top speed in ideal conditions is better than 150. The car was set up just the way I like it—for oversteer in tight corners and understeer in fast ones. Oversteer is when the rear end wants to break traction, where you hang the rear end out. Understeer is when the front end has a tendency to get light and push a bit.

The steering was heavy at 20 mph, as it should have been, and became progressively lighter as I went faster. If you have power steering and get going fast you don't feel anything—and you must feel the steering if you want to drive quickly. Clicking through the five-speed gearbox was a pleasure; Ferrari gearboxes shift like a knife through butter. You throw the stick, and it just kind of finds its own way in.

I thought Pininfarina's sculpturing was just beautiful. When the man drove it away, all eyes looked over there. The leather bucket seats were perfect, and the spokes in the steering wheel were set up so that you could easily read the speedometer and the tachometer. The car was redlined at 8,500 RPMs, and I respected that limit, although I was having a little fun pushing hard through the Esses. The shift had a very short, good throw. The pedals were hung so that you could play heel and toe if you wanted to. The power was such that a woman could go piddling along in third gear in traffic without any problems, yet a man could motor along just as easily at top RPM, so long as he respected the car.

The Alfa Romeo Duetto Spider comes from the same part of the world as the Ferrari. It is built by a company with a very old racing tradition and, as I expected, it was marvelous to drive within its limitations. On the narrow, mountainous roads of Italy it would be perfect. The five-speed gearbox was quite good, and I must say I was very impressed by the brakes. I stopped six or seven times from 90 mph and had absolutely no brake fade or locking. The Alfa handled well. Going through Turn One in fourth gear at the RPM limit of 7,000, which is close to a speed of 90, I could not break the rear end loose. I finally got it skating by throwing it to the left and then to the right. It is a very forgiving car. Very pretty, too; the Pininfarina body is swell. But with only 1,600 ccs. in the four-cylinder overhead cam engine it was a bit underpowered for my money. I prefer more passing power.

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