Chad McQueen on his father Steve, Le Mans 24-Hour and TAG Heuer
Chad McQueen – the son of film legend Steve McQueen – looks back on the legendary race that put his dad on the map as both an actor and a filmmaker: the Le Mans 24-Hour Race.
You were on set with your father during the making of Le Mans. What was that like?
When my dad was here making the movie, he shot around ten miles of footage. A huge amount. A few years ago, a friend of mine was visiting the archives at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles and found more than 420-reels of unseen footage. It was all sorts of stuff, too. Shots that never appeared in the final cut of the film, behind-the-scenes, as well as of the race cars going around the track.
There was so much in fact that we made a documentary called Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans. The film is really gritty; it’s really raw. It’s probably the best way to truly understand not just was going on behind-the-scenes of the movie, and why my dad was so driven to make it, but also what, the race is really like.
That film was marred with production issues and accidents. Do you remember any of that?
Oh, it was really dangerous back then. The racing driver Derek Bell was almost killed when his Ferrari caught fire. David Piper rolled his car and had his leg amputated.
During one of those crashes, I was hanging out with some of the crew. I could tell something was going on, as everyone started running around. I saw my dad beckon me over, and he said, “I want to show you what can happen in motor racing”.
Much later on, he took me to the crash site; the wreckage was about 30-metres long. I remember seeing parts of the wheel arches off in a field, and there were cows standing all around it. For a ten-year-old-boy to see something like that, it was pretty brutal
You come back here each year for the race. Does it still feel the same after all these years?
You know, a lot may have changed over the years, but at the same time, it’s pretty much the same. When I wasn’t hanging out with my dad on set, I would be watching the cars go round, or hassling the engineers and drivers.
I can tell you that the pits and grandstands are all pretty much the same. They have made a few changes to the track though – mainly for safety reasons – so when you watch the race, it’s a bit different than before. But more the same than different.
The Le Mans 24-hour race is legendary among racing drivers. Why is that?
There’s just something about it. It’s a mythical place. Many drivers have a fascination with the track because if you go back to the 1920s, right when motor racing really began, the track has more or less stayed the same.
For drivers, it’s like driving on a piece of history. Yes, as I said before they have made a few changes to the track over the years, but the overall drive is almost the same.
The race has always been known for its accidents. Those track changes were to curb those, correct?
Le Mans has always been dangerous. I think the most notable accident in recent memory was back in 1999 when Mark Webber’s car went airborne and flipped over a load of times.
All of that was put down to aerodynamic instability, but it led to changes on the track. The Mulsanne straight – which is around 5-kilometres of straight track – was modified, and chicanes were added. That has really ‘de-fanged’ the course quite a bit.
Do you think that was overkill?
I think if you take the equation of danger out of auto racing – and evens till, it is a dangerous sport – then the danger is it becomes too safe. It can become boring.
Personally, I think with the improvements of the cars over the years, with the inclusion of gravel traps, I don’t think slowing cars down is the answer. Today’s motors have so much higher cornering and grip levels. And because I am such a big fan of history, I believe you should leave things alone.
Now, I know a load of drivers out there will say I am full of sh*t, but other racing drivers have said the same thing. When there is no risk in auto racing, what’s the point?
That’s a little bit like what’s going on with Formula 1 now, right?
Do you mean like the Halo system? You know what that halo looks like to me? You know when you wear flip flops, that bit that goes between the toes?
The film Le Mans has a strong connection with TAG Heuer. Any idea how that came about?
Well, the Monaco wasn’t selling well at the time. Every other model was, so when my dad approached the company for some watches, they said, “Sure, have these ones”. And that was basically it. I am not a huge watch collector, but I do like functional things.
I drive with my Monaco; I can time my laps. My kids wear them. And I do particularly like the shiny new red one.