With a little help from a fellow named Peter Revson, Steve McQueen famously co piloted a Porsche 908 to second place in the 12 Hours of Sebring. Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Musician John Oates of Hall & Oates raced IMSA GTU Pontiacs and Slim Borguud, session drummer with ABBA, actually scored a point in the 1981 World Drivers Championship.
Dick Smothers, Gene Hackman, James Garner, Tim Allen and Craig T Nelson raced and owned professional teams and, today, Patrick Dempsey owns and races a GT Daytona Porsche 911 GT America in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship while Robert Herjavec, from ABC’s “The Shark Tank” competes in Ferrari Challenge.
Of course, the gold standard as race team owner and driver is Paul Newman. In addition to co-owning the Newman Freeman Can-Am team and Indy/ChampCar championship winning Newman-Haas Racing, “PLN” was a superb race driver in his own right with four SCCA national titles, Trans-Am wins and a second place in the 24 Hours of Le Mans to his name. At age 70, he became the oldest driver to be part of a winning team in a major professional race, taking a class win at the 24 Hours of
Daytona in 1996.
“Paul understood our sport, he appreciated it and he really wanted to be part of it…and he was in every way,” opines former Newman/Haas “employee” Mario Andretti. “He was there as a driver, he was there as an owner, and he was not just a superficial ‘show up on Sunday and leave halfway through the race’ guy. He was definitely ‘all-in’ and he definitely became one of the icons in motorsports.”
It’s not unheard of for celebrities to try their hands at stock and open wheel cars – country singer Marty Robbins had half a dozen top-10 Winston Cup finishes in the 1970s, while Motley Crue’s Vince Neil and Frankie Muniz were regulars in the American Racing Series and Formula Atlantic, respectively. Still, when it comes time to buckle the helmet and strap in the seat, celebrities seem to have a special affinity for sports cars.
For some it’s the mystique of a sport dating back to the 1920s and ’30s, featuring legendary marques and events.
“You’ve got the great marques – Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Bugatti, Talbot, Mercedes,” says Dempsey, “and the great history of road racing that started in Europe. Of course other forms of racing have their history but, to me it doesn’t hold the romance of road racing.”
Sports cars are a good fit for celebrity racers for practical as well as emotional reasons. Many don’t get the racing bug until they’re in their 30s and 40s, traditionally past the “sell-by” date for other forms of professional racing. Newman and Garner, for example, were introduced to motorsports through their roles in Winning and Grand Prix at ages 43 and 38, respectively.
“Sports car racing was a perfect fit for Paul,” says Andretti. “You don’t start in single-seaters when you’re in your 40s. It’s not that the sports cars aren’t demanding. They are demanding, but in a different way; a little milder. So he came through the ranks in the SCCA in sedans and got the feel of driving in competition that way, and he went on to achieve everything that he could possibly have expected, having come to the sport at his age.”
Others, notes Dempsey, “have always had the passion for racing since they were little kids but, unfortunately, they didn’t have the finances or the opportunity you need at that point to go down that road. But it’s always been there and eventually you get to a moment when the door opens and you’re allowed to enter into it.”
For Dempsey that door opened at Road Atlanta, first as a spectator and, later, as a student in the Panoz Driving School.
“I remember the moment when I left Petit Le Mans the first time,” he recalls. “I thought ‘Wow! I’ve found what’s really been missing in my life. And I really want to go after it.’ It was racing. I felt completely liberated.”
Sports car racing is also a good fit for the celebrity lifestyle, from the standpoint that – in contrast to a 36-race NASCAR Sprint Cup season or an IndyCar schedule that once demanded drivers take up residence in Indianapolis for the month of May – it does not require actors, musicians and others to give up their day jobs to race.
Ed Brown may not be a celebrity per se, but as CEO of Patrón Spirits Company and (with Scott Sharp) owner/driver of the Extreme Speed Motorsports Acura AHR-03B, he certainly deals with many of the same challenges as the McQueens, Garners, Newmans and Dempseys. He joins other noted businessmen/racers such as Greg Pickett (CytoSport) and Rob Dyson (media and investments) in trying to juggle dual careers.
“You have to be able to balance your responsibilities with the team and with your business,” he says. “If you were racing every week, you couldn’t do it – and if you tried you couldn’t do it very well.”
Of course, devoting a substantial portion of time and energy to other pursuits puts celebrity drivers at a distinct disadvantage compared to the competition.
“I can get up to speed with my teammates, but it takes me days to get there,” says Brown, “Where they jump in the car – even though they might not have driven for two or three weeks – and within two laps they’re on the hammer. That’s just unbelievable how they do it – it just comes down to a lot of laps.”
And that’s part of the allure of sports car racing. “You’re not a pro driver who’s in the car every day,” says Dempsey. “And you have to train; you have to be in the gym, you have to be on a bike, you have to run. Every day. All of these things make a difference in your lap time.
And then there’s your natural gift. You can work on it; you can improve upon it but, at the end of the day, there are really talented drivers and there are drivers who just drive. The question is where are you in that pecking order?
“There’s a great Phil Hill quote,” he continues. “‘Racing isn’t about beating your competitors it’s about making yourself better.’And it really comes down to the fact that racing has made me a better person. Psychologically. Physically. Spiritually.”
All that and you get to drive some of the world’s most exotic automobiles in some of the world’s most iconic sports events? Celebrities past and present obviously found that an offer they couldn’t refuse.