Last weekend, for the 99th year of the 24 Heures du Mans, two big-screen superstars were pitted against each other in the world’s longest-lived endurance race. Behind the wheel of Porsche 911 RSR-19 #93 sat Michael Fassbender, while guiding the otherwise identical #88 Porsche from the pit wall was Patrick Dempsey, now team owner of Dempsey-Proton racing.
Both men follow in the wheel tracks of Steve McQueen and Paul Newman as actors who swapped scripts for steering wheels at the famous French endurance race–although, in McQueen’s case, he managed to combine the two.
Let’s take a look at how each fared.
Fassbender spent three years preparing for his first Le Mans, after first spitballing the idea with Patrick Dempsey on a flight from London to Los Angeles. Dempsey put a word in with the people at Porsche, and soon the X-Men star was enrolled in the Porsche Driving Experience and the Porsche Racing Experience. Fassbender raced the 2019 season in Germany’s Porsche Super Sports Cup, finishing 13th, and snagged a few guest drives in the Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup in a more powerful 991 GT3 Cup.
Next up was two seasons in the European Le Mans Series, with Fassbender finishing a creditable fifth in the 2021 championship.
“Michael may not be the most natural talent, but he’s a hard worker,” declared his teammate Richard Lietz as they prepared for the biggest race of Fassbender’s life in 2022.
Partnered with Zacharie Robichon and Matt Campbell in the GTE Am class, he didn’t exactly have a flawless debut on the Circuit de la Sarthe. Fassbender crashed once during qualifying and twice during the night but fortunately on each occasion his Proton team was able to get the car running again, and the team finished 16th in class.
Not quite the Hollywood ending, but hopefully also not the end of Fassbender’s racing career, either. No doubt it will all be documented in Fassbender’s Road to Le Mans YouTube series.
Dempsey, or “McDreamy” to fans of Grey’s Anatomy, did manage to fulfill his Le Mans dreams, competing four times and getting on to the podium with his final attempt in 2015. Dempsey’s driving career began with a couple of rounds of the Panoz series in 2004. By 2008, he was racing regularly in the Rolex Sports Car Series. In 2009 Dempsey joined Advanced Engineering Team Seattle for his first 24 Hours of Le Mans, finishing ninth in the GT2 class.
After gaining further experience in the Rolex and American Le Mans Series, he then returned to France in 2013 with his own Dempsey Del-Piereo Proton team. After 24 hours of hard racing, Dempsey came just shy of the podium, in fourth place—but he persevered, returning in 2014 to finish fifth and, finally, to take some serious silverware in 2015 with second place.
Although Dempsey no longer drives, you can still find him on the pit wall as head of Dempsey-Proton racing. Though the team fielded two cars in 2022, only one finished, in fifth place.
“With an actor, unless you’re writing and directing and creating your whole world, there’s no control. But as soon as you cross the starting line in a racing car, you know it’s down to you. It’s very humbling, very inspiring—and the challenge is there of pushing yourself past normal limits,” Dempsey told The Times.
If ever a race seemed scripted for Hollywood, it would be the 1979 Le Mans. The hero: 54-year-old Paul Newman, entering for the first time in a Porsche 935. Of course, he’s the underdog, racing a car that could never match the factory-backed Porsches or Cosworth-powered Mirages. Not long into the race the leaders run into trouble, however, and it becomes a battle between the 935s of Kremer and Gelo, with Newman’s Dick Barbour car further back. Then comes a deluge, slowing the pace dramatically.
It’s Kremer in the lead. Gelo is out. Newman and his teammates are some 13 laps behind—an impossible gap to close.
Or is it?
With just a few hours to go, the leading car grinds to a halt on the Mulsanne Straight with a drivebelt issue. By the time it’s back in the pits, Newman has narrowed Kremer’s lead to just four laps. We’re expecting to see our Hollywood hero triumphant in the final act—only for our hopes (and his) to be dashed by a faulty wheelnut, relinquishing victory to Kremer’s car.
Newman never returned to Le Mans as a driver, but he famously carried on racing until he was 80.
“Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting,” believed the undisputed King of Cool, Steve McQueen. From the dirt bikes of On Any Sunday to the podium at Sebring, McQueen established himself as a huge talent behind the wheel and on screen, but he would never manage to fulfill his ultimate goal: to race at Le Mans.
In 1970 McQueen was in production for his racing epic and, as part of filming, planned to actually compete in the 24-hour race. He hoped that a major result at the 12 Hours of Sebring would persuade the snooty organizers at l’Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) to let him on the grid. Despite having a foot in plaster from a bike crash, McQueen manhandled his Porsche 908/2 to second spot in Florida, only to have the production’s insurers prevent him from taking part at the legendary Le Mans event. He would not race professionally again.