Fast cars and famous actors belong together. Hollywood stars drive all kinds of cool machinery in their films, and they often use expensive sports cars as their transportation in real life. Usually, though, one look at them behind the wheel is enough to tell that they really are just acting. Watch an actor closely during a chase or when he plays a racer, and you can tell from the way he sits in a car to the way he holds the wheel that he wouldn’t be able to drive fast in real life.
There are, however, exceptions. Many actors have tried to race for real at some point of their lives. For most of them, it’s just a hobby, something cool to try before they move on to the next interesting pastime. A few manage to find real talent within themselves and become real racers. Some even made some kind of career out of racing. A handful became true racers, even legends in the field.
During the past year, we ran a series that introduced you to some of them. You were probably aware of some of them, but others may have surprised you. It’s no surprise to learn that the “king of cool” was also a talented racer, and you surely heard about James Dean’s passion for speed – which ultimately led to his untimely end. On the other hand, can you imagine Mr. Bean behind the wheel of what was, at the time, the fastest road-going car in the world, or successfully competing on a racetrack? And did you know that Paul Newman would have become famous even if he hadn’t been an actor, just through his racing career? Or that a Grey’s Anatomy leading star also appears in the American LeMans series?
With New Year just around the corner, it’s a great time to do a little reading about famous people who found their second career behind the wheel. Click on their names to read the full stories!
His career in racing was really short – much like his film career. Both ended prematurely when, on 1st October 1955, he was hit by an oncoming driver while on the way to Salinas racetrack, behind the wheel of his new Porsche racecar. He still managed to prove that he was great both behind the wheel and behind the handlebars during the short time that he was given.
If someone says “racing actor”, Steve McQueen is probably the first name that pops into mind. His 1971 movie LeMans is one of the most highly regarded racing films ever made and he’s equally well-known for the car chase in Bullitt (and the fact he did a lot of the actual driving in it). His racing career, and his exquisite taste in cars, were famous and even today, he is an icon for petrolheads all around the world.
He didn’t drive Ferraris or race-ready Jaguars and he didn’t get into racing until his 40s. Still, he managed to become probably the most successful actor-racer ever. He won several titles in the SCCA series and he even managed to finish second overall (first in his class) in the famous 24h Le Mans endurance race. He was 54 at the time and he kept on racing well into his 80s.
Although he’s more of a “gentleman racer” and has never entered a major race, let alone win, Rowan Atkinson is a bona fide petrolhead and a talented driver. While his most famous character drives a beat-up Mini, Atkinson owns a little fleet of exquisite cars – and is not afraid to really use them.
Probably the closest we have today to Steve McQueen and Paul Newman in the 1960s, Patrick Dempsey has managed to build a successful second career in racing. The actor, best known as Dr. Derek Shepherd from Grey’s Anatomy, was a regular in various endurance races and his biggest achievement was placing second in his class at the 24h LeMans. Although he quit racing in 2016, he remains close to motorsport as a team owner.