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

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 now I was riding so far over my head that it was only by the grace of God that I was still upright. I was braking so late into the corners, I could barely hold onto the bars as the fork twisted and rattled and bottomed out from the punishment. I only backed off the gas long enough to keep from punching a hole in the fence—but I still couldn’t get away from McQueen.

I couldn’t go any faster—but neither could he. Something had to give, and on the last lap it did. Running flat-out in fourth gear down the fastest part of the track, my front wheel found a giant hole, and the bike instantly went into full-endo mode, pitching violently forward. I saved it just in time to see McQueen pass me in a shower of ugly brown dirt.

I began to take suicidal chances to catch him. I full-throttled jumps that I would have normally treated with fearful respect. I found new, fast lines—and it was paying off. With three turns left to the finish, I was 20 feet behind and closing fast…

With the final turn in sight, I moved to the outside and held on. I would rather crash than fail! McQueen heard me on the outside, so dove deeper toward the inside of the corner and squared it off.

And then it was over: He beat me by a couple of inches at the checkered flag. I didn’t slow down even after we crossed the finish line.

I was taking off my boots when my dad came by, carrying a folded yellow piece of paper. It was the sign-up sheet from the day’s races. I turned it over, and written on it was, “All the best, Steve McQueen.”

I had ridden harder and faster than I ever had before, and maybe McQueen had, too. We beat the hell out of each other for 30 laps, and only a millisecond separated us at the finish line. No amount of money or fame could have bought him his placing today; he earned it with his skills, determination and courage. I still have that piece of paper—and a vivid memory of racing against the King of Cool.

Talk about a souvenir! My three races with Steve McQueen pushed me to my limits, and I like to think I tested his abilities as well. Sadly, he passed away at age 50 in 1980.
Hesitation equals failure, and for me, failure meant getting beaten by a 41-year-old actor lovingly nicknamed the King of Cool.
If any got in the way, Intermediates were viewed as little more than obstructions to forward momentum, and then used for traction by us Experts.
Long before the money and the fame, Steve McQueen earned the right to call himself a racer, along with the respect of his peers. I was about to find out why…