Auto racing has dignity.” McQueen had a rocky start to life. He was born Terrance Steven McQueen, March 24, 1930 in Beech Grove Indiana. Before he reached his first birthday, both of his parents abandoned him, first his father and then his mother shortly after. A great uncle took him in until his mother sent for him to join her in California at age twelve. With little parental guidance McQueen drifted towards delinquency and was sent to the California Junior Boys Republic, a reform-school in Chico. He credited the school later in life for giving him direction and for keeping him out of further trouble.
His mother once again sent for him when he turned sixteen and he traveled to New York City to live with her. There he worked odd jobs and joined the Merchant Marines. He jumped boat in the Dominican Republic and worked his way to the States ending up in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He found himself becoming bored being a beach bum in South Carolina and joined the U.S. Marines. In the Marines he quickly got into trouble for going AWOL and spent time in the military brig. He however redeemed himself with the military by acting in a heroic manner. During a training exercise on the Artic Ocean a transport ship crashed into a sandbank and tossed many of the Marines aboard into to icy waters. McQueen personally pulled five men to safety. For his actions the Marines appointed him to the Honor Guard where he served out the rest of his duty protecting the yacht of Harry S. Truman. McQueen honorably left the Marines in April of 1950.
McQueen drifted for a bit after the Marines. He worked as a lumberjack in British Columbia, as an oil field worker in Texas and a delivery man in New York. He settled into New York and at the suggestion of a girlfriend took advantage of military educational benefits to study at the Actors Studio in New York City. He worked a harried schedule making deliveries, taking acting classes and racing his 1946 Indian Chief motorcycle on the weekends.
By the mid-1950s McQueen had worked on Broadway, television and had made the move to movies and Hollywood. He stared on the television show “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” McQueen is famous for his roles in movies such as “Bullit,” “Hell is for Heros,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “The Great Escape” with its notable motorcycle jump escape scene and “The Magnificent Seven.” He stared in “Sand Pebbles” for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination. He also took part in the production and financing of “On Any Sunday” a film about off-road motorcycle racing which greatly helped increase its popularity. The film’s cast included Malcolm Smith and Mert Lawwill.
Early in the 1960s McQueen purchased his first off-road motorcycle. He and fellow actor Dennis Hopper came upon some off-road riders while they were out cruising on their street bikes. Amazed by the capabilities of the off-road machines, McQueen purchased a Triumph 500 cc the next day from Bud Ekins. Ekins helped McQueen learn to ride the machine and soon McQueen took to racing off-road. He raced the motorcycle during the 1960s and early1970s. Heraced in the Baja 1000, the Mint 400 and the Elsinore Grand Prix. He also raced abroad. He was a member of the 1964 American team for the International Six Day Trials, held in East Germany. His team included Bud Ekins, Dave Ekins, Cliff Coleman and John Steen. Their team lead the race until Bud Ekins broke his leg then McQueen crashed.
The public closely associated McQueen with motorcycling. He wrote a series of motorcycle reviews for Popular Science in the mid-1960s. In 1971 he appeared shirtless on the cover of Sports Illustrated jumping a Husqvarna off-road bike. McQueen granted an extensive interview for the magazine proclaiming his love for the sport.
McQueen raced four wheeled off-road vehicles as well as motorcycles. He seemed to truly enjoy grueling off-road races, either on a bike or driving a car. He drove the Baja Boot for Vic Hickey in events such as the 1968 Stardust. Hickey said “Steve McQueen was a good driver, and he was tough, came out of that boys school in Chino.” McQueen generally finished in the top ten in any race he competed in. He raced despite contracts with his movie studios which prevented him from doing so. Sometimes he raced under the pseudonym of Harvey Mushman. McQueen organized the firm Solar Engineering to produce off-road vehicles and equipment. He patented the “Baja Bucket,” a racing safety seat of his own design.
At the age of 50 on November 7, 1980 McQueen passed away at a clinic in Mexico where he gone for experimental cancer treatments. McQueen suffered from mesothelioma a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. At the time of his death McQueen had amassed 210 motorcycles, 55 cars and five airplanes.
Sources: Rafferty, Tod. The Achievers, Central California’s Engineering Pioneers. Central Coast History Foundation, San Luis Obispo, CA. 2004.
2004, Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum- Inducted 1999, Steve McQueen Biography, http://members.tripod.com/~stvmcqueen/McQbio.html