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The opening scene: California's Mojave Desert at high noon. Dead silence. Through the shimmering heat waves, Mount San Jacinto seems to writhe on the horizon like a dying brontosaurus. The spines of the cactus at foreground right are in sharp focus, the gleaming spearpoints of a vegetable army. In the shadow of a boulder, sudden movement. A Gila monster raises its beadwork head and flicks its tongue, alert to the distant sound that is just beginning to insinuate itself into the desert's quiet. A strident, ululating whine, the invading noise rapidly gains strength as four distorted dots on the horizon weave closer. The dots take on color and shape as they approach: a quartet of red and chrome motorcycles, stunting and racketing their way through the puckerbushes, their riders vaulting the ridges and slaloming through the cactus at 70 mph. Their ominous, mechanical verve sends the Gila monster—descendant of the dinosaurs—scuttling for shelter. The camera zooms in on the lead rider's face, sun-blackened and jut-jawed under his helmet. Up music and credits. Hold onto your popcorn, folks—Harvey Mushman rides again!
That scenario, or one like it, takes place nearly every weekend in the desert surrounding Palm Springs. Harvey Mushman is the occasional pseudonym of Steve McQueen (see cover), movie actor and motor sportsman, when he goes a-racing. His companions on those fast, racking transits of the wasteland often include the best of the desert-riding breed: Bud Ekins or Roger Riddell, Mert Lawwill or Malcolm Smith. Now and then a smaller figure on a smaller bike trails behind, slower but only a touch less skillful in his handling of the desert's harsh nuance—Chad McQueen, the actor's 10-year-old son.
To the serious student (or critic) of motor sports, a movie actor might appear to be an odd choice to illustrate the game of desert riding. Actors, after all, are notorious in their appetite for publicity, and even those who appear in racing films usually have stuntmen do most of their driving. But Steve McQueen's racing credentials are quite in order. Last year he proved his competence as a sports car endurance racer by placing second in the 12 Hours of Se-bring. Aided by the considerable talents of Peter Revson as his co-driver, McQueen drove his half of the race impressively, mixing it up nicely in the corners and clocking lap times within seven seconds of Revson. What's more, McQueen was driving with his clutch foot in a cast—he had broken his left leg just one week earlier in a bike race at Elsinore, Calif. The cast itself cracked during the first 20 minutes of the race. "It hurt," Steve recalls, "and that took a lot of my strength away, but mainly it complicated the problems of downshifting through the corners." Add to that the fact that the McQueen-Revson car was an obsolescent Porsche 908, much slower in the straightaways than the top-line Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s, and McQueen's finish was even more remarkable. Mario Andretti, who won the race in a five-liter Ferrari, had to shift cars to do so. (His own machine broke down shortly before the end and he commandeered another team car that was lying third at the time. At that, Mario only won by 23.8 seconds.) "The motor sports Establishment was scared foofless that I was going to win," McQueen says now with a grin. "I'm told that Chris Economaki was tearing his hair and moaning, 'My God, not a movie actor, not a movie actor!' "
But why not? An actor with a rather limited repertoire, McQueen has done a lot to popularize the motor sports he regards as his avocation. In his film Le Mans the romantic clich�s of most racing movies are largely avoided, and the kinetic truths of high-speed sports car competition come across with a commanding fidelity. The driving sequences, particularly the crashes of a Ferrari and McQueen's Porsche 917 (actually a Lola with a Porsche body on the frame), are clearly the best and most realistic ever shot. When they viewed a rough cut of the film at Daytona earlier this year, drivers Jackie Oliver and Vic Elford could find no fault with the footage. "Seeing those shunts in slow motion makes you want to hit the brakes," allowed Oliver—quite a recommendation from a driver who rarely hits his own.
McQueen's climactic motorcycle scene in The Great Escape, a 1962 film about Allied POWs in a World War II stalag, was in reality a paean to dirt racing. His slides, jumps, wheelies and even the ultimate "endo" (end-over-end spill) showed a vast audience just what the weekend bike freak sees—and does—at a motocross event. It was a revelation to the uninitiated.
"Most bike flicks in the past concentrated on the outlaw crap," McQueen says, with some heat. " Hell's Angels and all of that stuff, which is about as far away from the real world of motorcycle racing as I am from Lionel Barrymore. Brando's movie The Wild One in the early 1950s set motorcycle racing back about 200 years."
The real grind of the American Motorcycle Association's championship circuit is well expressed in Bruce Brown's superlative bike flick On Any Sunday, which McQueen financed to the tune of $313,000, and the film goes a long way toward rectifying that earlier setback. It shows McQueen's sometime riding buddy Mert Lawwill trucking his Harley-Davidson from track to track—San Francisco to Columbus to Daytona and back to the Coast, to Sacramento—in defense of his No. 1 plate (which he loses to Gene Romero ultimately). Mainly, though, the Brown-McQueen effort conveys the agility and exuberance of bike riding, particularly off the road, so emphatically that the already swollen market of motorcycle buyers will probably explode as a result.
Insurance hangups have forced McQueen out of sports car racing, but no one can keep him off the motorcycles. "I can't really say I'm sorry that I don't race sports cars anymore," he mused recently at his Palm Springs home. Two tidy Porsche 911s were parked in the driveway, along with six motorcycles. He studied them for a moment. "There's something awfully final about automobile racing. I learned that when we were shooting Le Mans, if I hadn't learned it earlier driving. If you foul up in a car often enough, it's Adios City. Bikes can hurt you sure enough, kill you too, but there's not as high a fatality rate in bike racing as in cars. I guess it's the slower speeds and the absence of fire. If you lose it on a bike, you're clear of the machine when and if it burns. Minus some hide, of course, and dinged up pretty good around the arms and legs and head and shoulders. But basically you're intact. If you decelerate a car from 200 miles an hour to zero in like 10 yards, which is what happens if you hit a tree on a road course or the wall at Indy, you come out kind of compressed. And if you get knocked out in even a minor shunt and the car starts to burn...well, like I said, it's kind of final."
McQueen himself is kind of final about his role as a motor sportsman. "Look, I'm an actor, not a racer. I love bikes for the fun they give me, not the money they might have given me. You can't earn more than $80,000 a year racing bikes, and you work your tail off doing even that, races every weekend for seven months of the year and from coast to coast. I think that if I'd started young enough in motorcycle racing, I could have been ranked," says the actor, now 41. "I've won my share of races, and I've lost them, too. I was in heavy competition with Scooter Patrick for the course lap record at Phoenix, and finally I did it—I set the record. But it'll be broken. That's how it goes and how it should go. Sport is not like art. There is no 'best' in sports, only 'getting betters.' "
McQueen's interest in motorcycles dates back to 1950, when he bought his first bike, "a mean old 1946 Indian Chief. I remember how proud I was of it—I right away went over to see this girl I was dating to show it to her. When she saw it, she said, 'You don't expect me to ride around with you on that?' Well, I sure enough did. The girl went but the bike stayed."