ACTING LIKE A RACECAR DRIVER: 10 FAST THESPIANS

Turn on the TV or pop-in a Blu-ray and chances are you’ll see a car chase: actors choreographed with precision as high speeds and giant crashes seem to have no consequences on hairdos, makeup or designer clothing. When the action’s done, the director yells “cut” and the danger is turned “off” for the moment. Yet, there are some actors for whom the ersatz cannot cut it—their need for speed is so great that they must risk pretty faces and lucrative contracts to satisfy a jones for “faster.” Here is a random list of ten of Hollywood’s fastest men:

The one, the only–hail to the McQueen!

STEVE MCQUEEN—The coolest man who ever lived wasn’t just a damn good thespian; he was also a terrific racecar driver and motorcyclist. McQueen’s love for speed permeated almost every aspect of his life. When he wasn’t on horseback for one of his many Western roles, he was in the seat of a dirt bike. If McQueen wasn’t on a cycle, he was in a racing car—and he was so enamored of the sport that he sunk millions of his own money to fund the seminal 1970 movie, LeMans. In it, McQueen plays (what else?) a cool racer who manhandles a Porsche 908 for 24 hours, straight. In real life, McQueen partnered with Peter Revson for the 1970 12 Hours of Sebring and they won their class! McQueen also had legendary taste in road cars: four years ago, one of McQueen’s Ferraris sold at auction for over $2 million. A Porsche 911 that he drove in the opening scene of LeMans just sold for $1.3 million. McQueen can also be credited for the first (and greatest) car chase in modern cinema history. His Bullitt not only set the standard for such pursuits, but it’s imprinted so indelibly on the cultural landscape that even 40 years onward, Ford actually produced a “Bullitt Edition” Mustang.

He plays a doctor on TV…and his real life is even more exciting.

PATRICK DEMPSEY—Women call this star of TV’s Grey’s Anatomy, “McDreamy,” yet it’s more appropriate to call him, “McSpeedy.” Since appearing on the radar screen in the late-‘80s, Dempsey starred in several movies, including In The Mood, Mobsters, Made of Honor, and Sweet Home Alabama. Yet, his TV success thrust Dempsey into the spotlight in recent years, which meant only good things for his racing ambitions. Dempsey started in off-road competition, but his recent love has been Grand-Am road racing, in closed-cockpit cars, such as the Mazda RX-8 fielded by Dempsey Racing in the Rolex Sports Car Series. In 2009, Patrick co-drove a Ferrari F430 in the 24 Hours of LeMans and finished a respectable ninth in his class. In the 2011 24 Hours of Daytona, Dempsey placed third in his class. Clearly this Maine-born heartthrob can make engines red-line, in addition to hearts.

Acting, salad dressing, and racing–a success in all three.

PAUL NEWMAN—Paul Newman was a legendary actor, entrepreneur, philanthropist, racecar driver, and racing team owner. This blue-eyed movie star took up racing during the filming of Winning, which co-starred his wife, Joanne Woodward. During the 1970s, Newman tore up the tracks in the IMSA road racing series, famously helming a red-white-and-blue Datsun 280X. Later, he partnered with Carl Haas to form the Newman-Haas Indycar racing team, which won championships with Mario Andretti driving. However, Newman didn’t give up driving for fun and sport. He drove well into his 70s and he last took the wheel of a racecar a few months before he died. Truly, for Paul Newman, racing was life.

Fast Frankie.

FRANKIE MUNIZ—Best known as the title character in the early-2000s TV sitcom, Malcolm in the Middle, Frankie Muniz now spends his days as a “professional racecar driver.” (His description.) In 2005, Frankie won the Long Beach Grand Prix’s Celebrity Race, and that kickstarted his on-track endeavors. The following year, Muniz decided to put his acting career on hold in order to compete in the Formula Atlantic Championship series, which look like miniature Formula One cars, complete with open wheels and massive wings. However, Frankie’s prowess on the track pales in comparison to his success as an actor. He finished 2008’s season placed eleventh in the standings and in 2009, he came in ninth. It seems the 26 year old actor may have hung up his “professional” helmet because his Web site hasn’t had any news about his exploits in over two years. Maybe his next starring vehicle will be Malcolm in Last Place

Jason jammed his car into the wall at a high speed…and luckily lived.

JASON PRIESTLEY—Another staple of the FOX Network, actor Jason Priestley starred in the seminal 1990s shlockfest TV show, Beverly Hills 90210. In the series, rich, young people focused on such important issues as hair mousse and the proper way to rip a pair of designer jeans. Jason Priestley, feeling the desire to go faster, began his racing life in a Toyota rally car in the mid-90s. Yet, the taste for speed drew the Canadian actor toward open-wheel Indy Lights racecars. These paired-down speed machines are similar to the ground missiles that compete in the Indy “500.” However, even one of these babies was too much for Jason: in August of 2002, he crashed his car into a wall, going over 180 mph, at Kentucky Speedway. Luckily, Priestley wasn’t killed; he did, however, spend months convalescing, with broken bones. Now, Jason’s sights are away from the cockpit and more towards owning a race team. Smart move.

“Tom, the Cruise control button is on your left..”

TOM CRUISE—This “legend of modern times” just completed a demonstration test of a Red Bull Formula One car in California, where he was just four seconds slower around the track than an experienced F1 pilotte. Last year, Cruise went on the world’s most popular car TV show, Top Gear, and set the fastest celebrity lap time. Say what you will about his antics on Oprah, but Tom Cruise is among Tinseltown’s fastest racers. Story has it that Cruise got the “speed bug” from his Color of Money co-star, Paul Newman. Cruise went on to star in Days of Thunder, a 1990 flick about a NASCAR driver with the greatest name ever: Cole Trickle. Yet Cruise didn’t limit himself to ovals: he became an accomplished SSCA road racer. TC also has a passion for motorcycles, with Ducati and Confederate his preferred brands. Cruise control, indeed.

The Dean of young and tragic thespians.

JAMES DEAN—Perhaps the most famous casualty of Hollywood’s “need for speed,” James Dean still serves as the poster boy for road safety over a half century after his passing. A young actor who rose to star status in a few short years, James Dean patented and bottled “cool.” Dean first tasted speed with an MG TD that he raced around California. He was pretty good, too, placing second in a Porsche 356 at the Palm Springs Road Races in 1955. James Dean soon upgraded to a lightweight Porsche 550 Spyder nicknamed “Little Bastard”—a “silver bullet” of a car that, in the mid-1950s, ran rings around lumbering Corvettes. Only 90 of these speed demons were ever made and it was in this car that he met his fate in the form of a 1950 Ford driven by a college student on Route 466. James Dean died at age 24, behind the wheel of a Porsche. What a way to go, but nevertheless too soon.

Contrary to popular belief, Garner didn’t race a Maverick.

JAMES GARNER—He’s best remembered for his TV roles as cowboy Brett Maverick and private dick Jim Rockford, but James Garner also starred in the 1966 classic movie, Grand Prix. As a cocksure American competing against English Dukes and Italian Counts, Garner personified Yankee confidence. In real life, Garner raced cars and was also owner of American International Racers, which fielded entries at Daytona, LeMans, and Sebring. He also signed a contract with American Motors for him to enter 10 of their cars for the Baja “1000” off-road race in 1969. Interesting fact: James Garner drove the pace car in the Indianapolis “500” three times.

Jackie was a “superman” in a Healey.

JACKIE COOPER—This former “Our Gang” cast member recently passed away at age 88. With an acting career spanning from silent films to the Christopher Reeve-era Superman movies, Jackie Cooper is a sentimental favorite on the American cultural landscape. Yet few remember that Jackie had a love for fast cars. In 1955, Cooper personally commissioned Donald Healey to build him a racing 100S, which was among the first to arrive in America. At the 12 Hours of Sebring that year, Jackie suffered an electrical failure near the end and had to push the car over one mile in order to complete the race. A plucky kid star had turned into a fierce competitor with mettle, and racing was to thank for it.

Tool Time? Nope, it’s trophy time for Allen.

TIM ALLEN—People remember Tim Allen as the “Tim the Toolman” on the hit TV series, Home Improvement, yet this Detroiter always held fast cars close to his heart. Shortly after he was signed for HI, Allen started a racing team with legendary car tuner Steve Saleen. Known for his aggressive Mustangs that transformed ordinary Fords into supercars, Saleen prepared a duo of ‘Stangs for the company, with Allen helming one.  While Tim didn’t light the tracks on fire, he did start his own car customizing company, Tim Allen Designs. The emphasis is on—what else?—American iron and Allen’s hot rods are just as audience-appealing as his other pursuits.

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