Hal Hamilton exclaimed, "We had the star, we had the drivers. We had an incredible array of technical support, we had everything. Except a script", while Haig Alltounian, Steve McQueen's chief mechanic, recalled "We were winging it".
Steve McQueen was a car-racing fanatic and owned a Porsche 908. Driving this car during the 12 Hours of Sebring's 1970 edition with professional driver Peter Revson, he finished a close second behind Mario Andretti, who was determined "not to be beaten by a movie star". Andretti was driving a Ferrari 512. McQueen also wanted to be in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but was denied permission by the film's producers. His Porsche eventually did participate, driven by Herbert Linge and Jonathan Williams, with three cameras to get "live" footage for the movie. Despite the spoiled aerodynamics and frequent stops to change film rolls, the car managed to finish ninth. According to a persistent rumor, McQueen may have driven it secretly after all.
David Piper lost his leg because of a deep cut caused during a crash. Brake fluid and other debris got into the deep cut, which caused an infection and the need to amputate the leg. He received a special thanks "for his sacrifice" at the end credits.
Although the film was Steve McQueen's dream coming true, it left him with bitter feelings. There was the conflict with original director John Sturges, budget excesses, and even a strike by the entire crew.
The crashing Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512 were actually outdated Lola T70's 'made up' to look like a 917 and a 512, since it was out of the question to sacrifice one of these priceless cars. The fake Ferrari was remote-controlled.
Steve McQueen had asked John Sturges to work direct, but the two men couldn't agree on how to construct the movie. Sturges wanted to make a film with a more conventional script that focused on the relationships of the racers and concluded in typical Hollywood fashion with an upbeat ending. McQueen was more interested in making a racing documentary and he insisted on using very little dialogue in the film, making the cars the stars of the picture. He also expressed a desire to emulate some of the art house dramas being released in Europe at the time and told Motor Trend magazine that he had been inspired by French director Claude Lelouch's award-winning film A Man and a Woman (1966). Sturges' traditional approach to the material would lead to a giant riff in the production as well as signal the end of his working relationship with McQueen and he left the movie before filming began. As he left, Sturges cited, "I am too old and rich to put up with this shit".
Cinema Center Films (which had not previously been involved in the filming process) took over the production after a few months and suspended production for two weeks (even giving Robert Redford a call to see if he would replace Steve McQueen). Cinema Center Films considered shutting down the film completely, but eventually struck a deal with McQueen, in which he gave up his salary, his percentage of any profits and his control of the film, in order to get it finished.
The Porsche 917 which Steve McQueen drove in the film (chassis 022) would later be sold to a privateer for its last competitive year driven regularly by Reinhold Jöst and Willi Kauhsen, before later being sold to race driver and film participant Brian Redman. Redman then sold it to Richard Attwood, the 1970 winner and another film participant, who referred to it as "his pension". Attwood then resprayed it to his 1970 winning color of red with white stripes as well attending numerous shows with it. He later sprayed it to the blue and orange Gulf Oil colors for promotional purposes and auctioned the car off at RM Auctions during the Monterey Historics weekend for less than £1 million in 1974 to Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler, a noted collector. Chandler then sold the car to Bruce McCaw in 2001, and it was maintained at Vintage Racing Motors in Redmond, WA.
Off screen a major accident occurred involving Mario Iscovich, his personal assistant, and starlet Louise Edlind in which Steve McQueen crashed their car going too fast in the rain, missed a curve and rolling several times in a field. Steve didn't want to call an ambulance because of publicity and tried to steal a car from a farmhouse, the owner came out screaming in French, holding a shotgun in and then fired into the air. Steve was very paranoid that Louise would ruin the production. Mario took the blame for the accident, even though he wasn't driving and left the film without a job.
The movie was made in 1970, and depicts a Porsche 917 winning the 24 hours of Le Mans. The 1970 edition of Le Mans was indeed won by a Porsche 917. This marked Porsche's first overall win at the 24 Hours.
Derek Bell had a lucky escape during shooting. The Ferrari 512 he was driving suddenly caught fire while he was getting into position for a take. He managed to get out of the car just before it was engulfed in flames and received only minor burns. The car was badly damaged but later rebuilt.
All Ferraris appearing in the movie were borrowed from Belgian Ferrari distributor Jacques Swaters, since the Ferrari factory had refused its participation because the movie ends with a victory for Porsche.
The Heuer Swiss watch Steve McQueen insisted on wearing throughout this shoot, was reissued in 2009 in commemoration of its 40th anniversary. The latest (4th) update is a replica of the 1969 original Monaco model, complete with automatic self-winding movement and red chronograph hands. RRP: £3,500.
Despite being depicted as the factory-backed Ferrari team, the 512's used were borrowed from Belgian Ferrari distributor Jacques Swaters. Enzo Ferrari had been approached to supply the cars but refused official Ferrari participation after reading the script and finding out that the movie ends with a victory for Porsche. Enzo told the producers they could only use the factory 512's if the script was re-written to have a Ferrari win the race. His request was refused.
Steve McQueen became increasingly paranoid as a result of finding out he was on Charles Manson's kill list. It led him to pursue a license to get a gun to protect himself. His marriage to Neile Adams McQueen was falling apart as well. She was having an affair with Maximilian Schell. When he found out, McQueen offered him a part in the film (possibly in the hopes of running him off the road), but Schell wisely refused.
The 1970 911S Porsche driven by Steve McQueen in the opening scenes (and owned by his Solar Productions) was auctioned in 2011 and brought $1.375 million. An equivalent 911S would have been valued at under $175,000 at the time.
In many ways, it was lucky this film was made in 1970, since the star sport cars Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512, arguably the two most legendary sports prototypes ever conceived, were actually very short lived. The Porsche appeared in 1969, the Ferrari in 1970, and both were withdrawn at the end of 1971 (as official factory-cars that is). The 1970 edition of Le Mans was the only one the Ferrari appeared in. The Porsche 917 won the 1970 and 1971 editions, Porsche's first two overall wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. They would go on to become the most successful marque with 17 overall wins. The most recent was 2015
Filmed on location during the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in mid-June 1970, Steve McQueen had intended to actually race a Porsche 917 together with Jackie Stewart, but the #26 entry was not accepted. Instead, in the movie, he was shown starting the race on the blue #20 Gulf-Porsche 917K, which in the real race was driven by Jo Siffert and Brian Redman. The race-leading white #25 Porsche 917 "Long tail" was piloted by Vic Elford and Kurt Ahrens, Jr..
Additional footage shot after the race used genuine racing cars of the day, mainly Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512 models, painted as real competitors which staged the main rivalry in the 1970 season and the film. According to rules, 25 of each sports car had to be built, so enough were available, compared to few if any of the prototype class. In the crash scenes, cheaper Lola T70 chassis were sacrificed, disguised with bodywork of the Porsche and Ferrari.
The Porsche 908/2 which Steve McQueen had previously co-driven to a second place in the 12 Hours of Sebring was entered by Solar Productions to compete in the race, equipped with heavy movie cameras providing actual racing footage from the track. This #29 camera car, which can be briefly seen in the starting grid covered with a black sheet (at approximately 17:51) and again at just before the 79 minute-mark (at 1:18:42) racing past the starting line, was driven by Porsche's Herbert Linge and Jonathan Williams. It travelled 282 laps, or 3,798 kilometres (2,360 miles) and finished the race in 9th position, but it was not classified as it had not covered the required minimum distance due to the stops to change film reels. It did, however, manage to finish 2nd in the P3.0 class.
Steve McQueen had wanted to employ Christopher Chapman's new multi-dynamic image technique in the film, as had been done at his instigation with The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), in which he starred in 1968. Chapman advised against it, much to McQueen's disappointment; in Chapman's words, "it was much too big a film, with too many writers; it wouldn't work that way."
"Sight and Sound" magazine's obituary for German-British cinematographer Walter Lassally claims that he worked on the film, but that, when it was abruptly announced that the ten-hour shooting days were to be extended to twelve-hour days (with no consultation with the crew), Lassally wrote "UNACCEPTABLE" across a call-sheet, pinned it up publicly, and was fired soon afterwards.
During the filming, some twenty-six of the world's most famous race drivers were brought in to drive for the film. Their race cars were valued together at more than a million dollars. Six were to be crashed intentionally during the film, at the cost of $45,000 a piece.
Outlines and scripts proved to be numerous during the entire production due to Steve McQueen's determination to portray the reality of racing unencumbered by the artifice of an imposed storyline. John Sturges and producers Jack N. Reddish and Robert L. Rosen urged McQueen to reconsider, but the lack of a completed script remained the core of the production's problematic, long shoot. Sturges' frustration with McQueen's resistance ultimately prompted his departure from Le Mans.
Steve McQueen initially hired his friend Alan Trustman to write the script. Over the course of filming, they fell out and McQueen fired him. Trustman barely worked in Hollywood again. McQueen also fell out with producer Robert Relyea.