Racing With Steve McQueen | The Nitro Kid and the King of Cool

By Kurt Markham, Photography by Kurt Markham Archives

It was hot that morning at Indian Dunes. The August sun ignited the scent of the brush that lined the riverbed near the track. The reigning big guns were out of town, giving us rookie Experts a chance to prove we were worthy of our recent promotions to the elite level of open-class warfare. This was our day, and nothing was going to spoil it for us … until I read the lineup for our race. Penciled in under my #23 was #24, Steve McQueen.

In 1971, McQueen was the best-known motorcyclist in America. He had it all: fame, fortune and a string of hit movies. During interviews, when asked what he did during his free time, he always responded that he liked to race motorcycles. But what did he know about racing? What did he think this was: a chance for some big movie star to do a little cherry-picking?

I was so mad, I shook like a 165-lb. bag of agitated nitroglycerine. No actor was going to beat me! I needed to prepare for my race, but I couldn’t. All I could think about was him.

I got to the starting line extra-early to pick my spot. I looked down the line and there he sat, five riders down from me: Steve McQueen himself. He didn’t look like any high-dollar movie star, though. He looked just like the rest of us: all business.

I don’t even remember the starter’s hand moving; I just found myself racing down the start straight. But I had company—and lots of it.

We piled into the first turn like a trainwreck amid a maelstrom of flying dirt and screaming engines. I was getting hit by rocks, wheels, handlebars, knees and elbows in this rolling dogfight, but I held on tight and emerged in third place.

I gassed it hard, and just as I entered the next turn, a 21-inch knobby tire gnawed at my right leg. I took the hit and forced the attacker to the inside. I glanced at his numberplate: #24!

I buried the throttle and held on for dear life. I slammed into the next corner, nearly crashing, and again there was McQueen. This went on lap after lap, but I held the inside line and crossed the finish line just in front of him.

The next race was a carbon-copy of the first, but this time our roles were reversed—I just could not ride fast enough to pass him! Still, first place in the third and final moto would give me the overall win—but could I beat him?

When the starter threw the flag, all I did was aim. I entered the first corner in a 12-rider tie for the lead. We were so tightly packed, it was a miracle we all didn’t go down! A gap opened up on the inside and I dove for it, now solidly in the lead.

Then McQueen came out of nowhere and pulled even with me at the end of a rutted straightaway. We both knew the score: One of us was going to lose.

By Kurt Markham
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Great article.  Thanks.
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