GRR

Seven times celebrities have become racing drivers

26th August 2020
Laura Thomson

Racing is expensive. Fact. So unless you have a trust fund or bags of talent, the higher echelons of motorsport are often unattainable. And while celebrities can certainly afford the cars, crews and entry fees, they often fall short on talent. Tom Cruise, for example, was reportedly nicknamed him “See Cruise Crash Again”, and movie-makers refused to insure him if he continued the hobby.

But just sometimes, just sometimes, a star proves quite handy in a car…

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Patrick Dempsey

Grey’s Anatomy’s Dr Derek Shepherd is known for his deft hand on the operating table, but in real life, actor Patrick Dempsey boasts similar skill behind the wheel, with almost 70 races to his name.

Alongside four starts at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and a second place class finish in 2015, the year in which he contested the full World Endurance Championship season, he counts podiums in the IMSA Sports Car Championship, including at the 24 Hours of Daytona and Sebring 12 Hours. He also raced in the American Le Mans Series, Porsche Supercup, Grand Am Rolex Series, Maserati Trofeo World Series and the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge.

While the accomplished racing driver is not as prolific on track as he once was, he now runs and races for his Dempsey-Proton team in various endurance events. In short, he’s one of the most experience celebrity racers around.

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Rowan Atkinson

Taking the top spot on our list is Goodwood regular Atkinson. While his alter ego Mr Bean is better known for more curious cars, Atkinson is often seen behind the wheel of a classic racer.

The 65-year-old featured in our list of ‘six awesome celebrity car collections’ for his extensive array of vehicles, which includes everything from a 1989 Lancia Delta Integrale to a 2011 Skoda Superb. And he’s not afraid to use them, with Atkinson clocking up decades of racing experience, including driving a mid-engined Renault 5 in the Manufacturer’s Turbo Cup racing series in the ‘80s. He’s had a few bumps along the way, both on road and on track, but for the most part, though, Atkinson’s racing record has been positive. Over the years he has raced many of his own classics at the Goodwood Revival, and in 2002 he even shared a drive with Sir Stirling Moss.

Caitlyn Jenner

Before the fame and fortune that came with Keeping up with the Kardashians, Caitlyn Jenner – then Bruce – achieved attention for a very different reason: his prowess on the track, both on foot and wheels. The gold medal-winning Olympic decathlete was the all-American hero, able to turn his hand to anything, it seemed.

After record-setting success at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Jenner began his motorsport career with a chance invitation to be the ‘Grand Marshal’ at an IMSA Laguna Seca fixture. Hooked on racing once again, he made his debut in the Toyota Pro-Celebrity one-make saloon race at the 1979 US Grand Prix West at Long Beach. In a dramatic turn of events, first lap chaos allowed Jenner to gain such a lead that he won the race, ahead of four-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Sr.

During the ‘80s, he began racing seriously in the IMSA Camel GT series. His first victory came when sharing the Roush Racing Ford Mustang with Scott Pruett in the 1986 12 Hours of Sebring, with the pair taking the IMSA GTO class win and finishing fourth overall. That year, he finished second in the championship to his team-mate, all the while collecting podium finishes in sprint races that he entered alone.

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Frankie Muniz

The name sounds familiar, but you just can’t quite place it, right? ‘Yes, no, maybe, I don't know, can you repeat the question?’ That should jog your memory...

Yep, that’s right, while America’s very own Malcolm in the Middle has been noticeably quiet on the silver screen ever since the sitcom finished in 2006, he’s been keeping busy elsewhere – behind the wheel, to be precise.

At the age of just 15 Muniz drove the pace car for the Daytona 500, in the race that cost Dale Earnhardt his life. He, too, was a product of the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race, finishing seventh in 2004, third the following year and fourth in 2011.  After signing with Jensen Motorsport, he contested fourteen races during the 2006 Formula BMW USA season, also competing in the annual Formula BMW World Final at Valencia, albeit with little success.

He then raced in the Champ Car Atlantic series from 2007 to 2009, in 2008 winning the Jovy Marcelo peer-voted sportsmanship award.

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James Dean

The very heartthrob who today adorns legions of teenage girls t-shirts was in fact a man of many talents. Alongside his acting skills and his devilish good looks, Dean was a natural behind the wheel and invested in a number of vehicles throughout his career, including a Triumph Tiger T110 and a Porsche 356.

In March 1955, he made his debut at the Palm Springs Road Races in his Porsche Super Speedster, taking the win in the novice class and second place overall. A month later he finished first in his class and third overall in Bakersfield, before contesting his final race in Santa Barbara in May, which he failed to finish due to mechanical issues.

Sadly, the promising young racer died in a car crash on September 30, 1955, as he made his way to what would have been his next race. The 24-year-old was driving his ‘Little Bastard’ Porsche 550 Spyder from Los Angeles to Salinas, in order to break it in before contesting the Salinas Road Race.

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Steve McQueen

Another mid-century movie poster boy, Steve McQueen was almost as well known for his racing as he was his roles in million-dollar movies. In fact, the King of Cool himself once said, “I’m not sure whether I am an actor who races or a racer who acts.” And the two passions occasionally collided, with McQueen often jumping at the opportunity to perform his own stunts, including the car chases in Bullitt and Le Mans, and the motorcycle chase in The Great Escape.

As a racer, his heart lay in motorcycles, contesting Triumphs and BSAs in the Baja 1000, the Mint 400, and the Elsinore Grand Prix in an era when desert rallies were beginning to take off. In 1964 he joined his stunt double Bud Ekins in the first official US team to enter the International Six Days Trial, held in Germany that year. Neither McQueen nor Ekins finished the event, however they competed with great aplomb. At the time, British magazine Motorcycle Sport commented: "Riding Triumph twins... [the team] rode everywhere with great dash, if not in admirable style, falling off frequently and obviously out for six days' sport without too many worries about who was going to win (they knew it would not be them).”

McQueen also toyed with automobile racing, and finished third in a BMC Mini at Brands Hatch in the 1961 BTCC. With a cast on his foot from a motorcycle accident, he joined Peter Revson in the 1970 12 Hours of Sebring race, to win the 3.0-litre class and come second overall in a Porsche 908/02. Further race attempts, including co-driving Jackie Stewart at the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans were thwarted by the backers of the 1971 Le Mans film, which he was filming concurrently.

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George Lucas

May the force be with you indeed. A surprising entry on this list, before creating one of the world’s largest sci-fi film franchises, George Lucas was a prolific drag racer, often found racing in the underground scene in a souped-up Autobianchi Bianchina, an Italian supermini based on the Fiat 500.

While his heart at that time lay in automobile racing, and movie-making barely figured, a crash shortly before his graduation in June 1962, which left him with crushed lungs in intensive care, changed his perspective.

Speaking to Starlog in 1981, he said: “I spent some time in the hospital, and I realised that it probably wouldn’t be smart for me to be a race driver – especially after this accident.

“Before that first accident you are very oblivious to the danger because you don’t realise how close to the edge you are. But once you’ve gone over the edge and you realise what’s on the other side, it changes your perspective… And I just decided that maybe that wasn’t for me. I decided I’d settle down and go to school.”

And thus he became the billion-dollar movie-maker that he is today.

Rowan Atkinson image by Nick Dungan, Muniz, McQueen and Lucas images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • Le Mans

  • Daytona

  • Revival

  • Rowan Atkinson

  • Patrick Dempsey

  • Steve McQueen

  • James Dean

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