McQueen at "Le Mans"
influence of a Porsche 917 the absolute best of the best)
note: The black and white pictures featured below are featured in the
book "A French kiss with Death" written by Michael Keyser and
Jonathan Williams. The pictures are courtesy of Derek Bell, Paul
Blancpain and Lee Katizn. The publication is by Bentley Publishers and
it deals almost exclusively with the making of the film "Le Mans".
above is the real 1970 Le Mans winner with drivers Herrmann/Attwood.
This Salzburg 917k was offered for sale in July 2000, a tidy
buy at just 3.5 million.
you see, my love of fast cars goes back a while. As a kid, this passion
was feed by the input of live motor racing. My father liked the sport,
so he often took us out to the Phillip Island circuit in Australia. In
the early 1970s television coverage of motor sport was nothing like it
is today, it was either nonexistent or at midnight, I am not sure which,
but I never saw it. International races were never, to my memory,
covered at all.
So for international racing, all I had to go on was the colorless and
motionless images meagerly displayed in the way-too expensive magazines
lining the back shelves in the local shop. When first I heard of the
movie "Le Mans", it was still in production, nevertheless, I
was in heaven, I could not wait. I was a wide-eyed kid, and these were
the living Gods of the mechanical world, international racing machines
of legend and fame. And they were going to be up on the silver screen,
where they had always belonged anyway. Information on the progress of
the film was rare, but what information I could gather indicated that
the "Le Mans" film was going to feature the greatest sports
racing car of them all ... the Porsche 917. God as an automobile, that
was the 917. As a thoroughbred purpose built race car the Porsche 917
was the highest example of the art, a symphony of rare metals and exotic
materials, all wrapped in a gorgeous looking glass fiber body. It was
the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, so perfect , every line a
purpose, yet still so seductive, and deadly. Twenty seven years later
history still agrees, in 1997 the Porsche 917 was voted as the greatest
race car of all time.
Steve McQueen's legacy is that he had both the love and foresight to use
the 917 as the center attraction of his 1971 movie. McQueen was a car
nut, and he loved the Porsche 917 above all. Being himself an
accomplished racedriver (having finished second at the Sebring 12 hour
the same year) McQueen elected to handle all his own driving, often at
speeds exceeding 200 MPH. Then he leased many real life race cars to
assist in authentication of the film, signing up professional race
drivers to handle these cars, (well who else could). Today the car used
by Steve McQueen himself still exists, so if you have a spare $2,000,000
or so you might like to have a bid for it. Car number 20 was a genuine
"Gulf-Porsche", chassis number 917-017 to this day it is still
painted in magnificent "Gulf-Porsche" blue, and now resides in
did not get to win even in his own film. His number 20 car
crashed out of the race.. well you have to have a plot.
Police assisting with filming. The Porsche 917s being the
front two cars, followed by a Ford GT40 used as a camera
the early 1970s sports car racing was at its peak, hard for today's fans
to conceive, but trust me, today it is a faded shadow of its heyday. But
back in the 60's and very early 70's the sports racing class was well
supported and big news, the duel between Porsche and Ferrari for
supremacy at "Le Mans" was the high point of the racing year.
In the golden age of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the sports cars
were by far and away the fastest circuit racing formula, not only faster
than the Formula One cars, but they ran for up to 24 hours. On the big
circuits like "Le Mans" with its 3.2 mile straight they were
simply awesome. All Steve McQueen had to do was get it all on film.
Today in the year 2000 the film will seem dated. In fact, McQueen was
criticized at the time for his final result. Many believed he was too
much the racing driver and not enough a film maker to do the job. But to
me the film remains as the most publicly accessible showcase of the 917,
and I am just so glad for that, and the Porsche 917, ha ha ... it is
like the interceptor, it will never grow old.
When the film came out, I went to see the movie as soon as I possibly
could. I loved it, the film had me lost in wonderland. The mighty
Porsche 917s stole the entire movie. They were magnificent, perfection
on the racetrack, the blue and orange stripped cars moved with a speed,
sound and style I had never seen, and the sound ... oh God the sound.
The Porsche 917 used a flat 12 boxer that revved to 8000 or 9000 RPM,
and it sounded like a low note humming top, no V8 rumble, just a
succession of variations to the high-pitched howling scream. Motoring
journalists from the time, (and still some today) comment that it was
the greatest sounding race car EVER. If victory has a voice, it is the
917. The Porsche mechanics of the day recalled that the engines big flat
fan could "suck clouds down from the sky".
The "Le Mans" film used much footage actually shot during the
1970 race. McQueen's "Solar Productions" had entered a car for
the purpose of shooting film. In 1970 Vic Elford had become the first
driver to break the 150 MPH average speed for a lap of the 8.408 mile
circuit, Elfords 917 was a distinctive long tail car, and had been
reaching up towards 250 mph on the 3.2 mile Mulsanne straight.
Elford's long tail car, the first car to break the 150 MPH lap at Le
movie recreation of the first lap, McQueens Gulf-Porsche
917k number 20 leads Vic Elford in 25. Note: Lights are
taped to prevent dust damage before dark.
for me as a kid, well I shall never forget that early movie scene, the
White car so much larger than life, there it was, right up on the screen
as Vic Elford blasted the opposition into the weeds during the opening
sections of the race. Elfords real life runaway start was perfect for
the film, and McQueen grabbed it all.
From my theater seat, all I saw was the white car streaking away from
the rest, a beautiful low down shot as it howled up the straight visibly
quicker that the finest cars of the works Ferrari and Porsche teams.
And Vic Elford ... I can't help but wonder what he felt, in first place,
alone at the front, nothing but a clear French afternoon before him. He
was driving the world's most important racecar, leading the world's most
prestigious race, on the world's most famous circuit, and no one on
Earth could catch him. I still wonder, did Vic Elford glance to his
mirrors and see the legendary blue "Gulf -Porsche" cars fade
into the background. As his long tailed car pulled away into the history
books. Did he remember then that he, Vic Elford, had taken the hard road,
and stuck with the long tail development, steadfastly following his
belief in its potential, when others had gone the way of the short tail.
McQueen attempted to show the bewilderment of the others, in his mock
battle, he looked on wide eyed at the disappearing Elford car as it
simply drove away into the distance, as it had done in real life.
In 1970 Vic Elford did not win at Le Mans, in the night he missed a gear,
a common enough error by the 917 drivers. Anyhow, this overrevved the
engine, and it dropped an inlet valve. The Gulf-Porsche juggernaut
missed here also, John Wyer's resplendent blue cars failing for one of
the few times that season. The luckless Jo Siffert was leading the race
for Gulf-Porsche when he too missed a gear, just as Elford had done, and
shared the same fate. As pictured at the top of this page a Porsche 917k
did go on and win anyhow.
I saw the film many times. Then it disappeared for a decade or so ...
till video restored the childhood memories.
The Gulf - Porsche 917s were perhaps the nicest of them all. In fact,
each 917 was slightly different as they continued to improve the breed
with each one produced, the "Gulf" cars always seemed to have
the edge, both in looks and performance.
Long after the 917 finished its racing life, driver Vic Elford explained
a few things about driving the 917 long tail. (Elford by the way was to
describe the number 25 Porsche 917 long tail "The one from the
McQueen film" as "a monster".)
Vic Elford went on to point out, "The long tail had to be driven
like it was on rails".
I have a personal theory on why the 917 was considered so hard to drive.
Many of the sportscar drivers of the day were used to sliding the
shorter bodywork powerful cars, like in "Can Am" on the
shorter USA tracks in a "Can Am" car they could drive and
steer with the accelerator, this style was spectacular and flamboyant.
But on the higher speed European tracks if a driver got a long tail more
than a bit out of line, they would crash. And if a 917 crashed at race
speed, drivers -more often than not- died.
Add to this the fact that no one had really driven at the kind of speed
the 917 was producing, so the aerodynamic stability was new territory.
However, with the 917 actually putting fear into many drivers, it can be
understood how the car became known as "The Ulcer", or more
often, "The Widow maker." Vic Elford also commented, "If
handled right the long tail was devastating, I once took the kink at Le
Mans at 245 MPH in the wet and the dark!" He then enlarged the
statement with "Not exactly first go, it took a lot of practice
till I had the nerve to even attempt it in the daylight. I honestly
believe that only a few drivers ever came to grips with the 917's
specific driving requirements, I believe I did, and as testimony I am
still alive when so many are not".
On the short tailed car Elford commented, "the short tail was also
a lethal beast, the tail section was just kind of cut off, we had no
wind tunnel testing, so it was just cut the tail off, and away we went!"
The result was that the car had huge lift at the rear, if you backed off
suddenly from 220 MPH (in pure fright I presume!) the rear of the car
would almost take off". From what Elford has said, any driver who
survived the earlier 917s must have been good.
McQueen's car was one of the later models, more distinctive as it had
the rear wheel arches "flared" to allow for the larger dry
weather rubber, and had an airfoil positioned in the center of the rear
tunnel section; Gurney tabs were also added. This effectively combated
the lift issue.
McQueens number 20 car, pictured in the late 1990s. Not a
movie prop, but a genuine "Gulf - Porsche 917k" it
carried chassis number 917-017. To me this car is the best
example of the breed.
though the direct descendant of the 917 was the similar-looking long
tailed Porsche 956. The 917 must still rate as the peak of the sports
racing popularity, if not development. Sports car evolution was to
follow the "all out" preparation style of the 917. By "all
out" preparation, I really mean to say "no expense spared and
logical thinking". In construction of the 917, Porsche worked with
minimum weight as a prime directive. Porsche knowing that the secret of
speed lay in the power to aerodynamic weight ratio. The 917 was
therefore constructed using every trick previously unthought off,
titanium where ever possible, lightness obsession right down to the
balsa-wood gear knob, and the holes drilled through the center of the
various locating bolts. With the 1972 season outlawing the 5-litre cars,
the following years of evolution just served to remove the splendor of
the class. Today's cars are just - well to me at least- boring and ugly.
Back in the very early 1970s the big horsepower cars were considered
just to fast. And drivers were dying. So the controlling body reeled it
all in, and for the 1972 season reduced the engine capacity back to 3 Lt.
The fantastic 917s could no longer race, and collectively they faded
But they went out at the very top, as legends, and they have remained
28 years on and the 917 still holds record for distance covered during
the 24 hours of "Le Mans". Try 5335 Km (or 3293 miles) at an
average of 222.3 KPH (or 137.2 MPH). Hmmm that is Melbourne to Perth and
almost half way back.
Furthermore, I expect Pedro Rodriguez's magnificent 162 MPH lap of SPA
conducted in a Gulf Porsche 917k is still amongst the fastest ever lap
speeds on a road course. And Pedro's drive of the 917 at Brands Hatch in
appalling weather is consistently rated by those lucky enough to see it,
as the finest drive they have ever seen. On that day Pedro was so fast
and the conditions so bad that a pit crew member was heard to ask
manager John Wyer if "We should bring Pedro in, and tell him it is
raining", and remember race crews have seen it all, they are hard
to impress. John Wyer would later describe Pedro's drive as
"virtuoso". It was the performance of two legends, the finest
sports car driver of the time and the finest racecar of the time. On
that wet afternoon both displayed their full ability. From the outset
Pedro put the car in front, drivers changed, and later in the race when
Pedro resumed control of the 917 it was right back in the pack, Pedro
drove his finest drive, and won the BOAC 1000 by five laps.
At this stage it is worth mentioning that every race car is only built
to operate within the maze of regulations and restrictions imposed on it.
These restrictions can change from year to year. The 917 simply did the
best job in the climate at the time. Actually comparing the relative
performance of race cars from differing eras is really like comparing
music from different eras. There is no yardstick for comparison, so
truly, none can be made. The same with drivers; like athletes, they are
the best of their time, and that is all that should be said.
Today in year 2000 rumor has it that McQueen shot hundreds of hours of
film, that means there must be enough film in a file or vault someplace
for a "making of" documentary. I sure hope so.
Nothing left to say but ...Thank you Steve McQueen, you captured their
sound and functional beauty on celluloid . You may have gone, but
because of your dreams, they get to live on.
Gulf - Porsche at Daytona, note the roof cutout to enable
the driver to see on the banking.
Photo thanks to Robin Thompson Art and Racing. Print title:
"Gulf-Porsche 917k the ultimate weapon".
you are racing ... it's life. Anything thing that happens before or
after... is just waiting". - Steve McQueen 1971.