There must be a connection between the skill set of actors and that of race car drivers. Perhaps it’s the adrenaline rush and desire to adapt to anything thrown at them. That happens regularly in front of the camera, as well as on the race track. Some actors are dissatisfied with the pursuit of playing a driver and prefer real-life adventure. These actors go on to use their fame to score a few sponsors and get behind the wheel of a genuine race car to compete against career pros. Here are 12 of them.
12. Rowan Atkinson, aka Mr. Bean
Although he is best known as the comic genius behind the slapstick character Mr. Bean, comedian Rowan Atkinson is a serious race car driver and racing enthusiast. When not filming movies such as Johnny English and television shows such as Blackadder, Rowan Atkinson spends his time racing around tracks across the world and writing for race car magazines. He previously owned a McLaren F1 race car, which he crashed, and, in the 1980s, he drove a mid-engined Renault 5 in the Manufacturer’s Turbo Cup racing series. He also drove his own Aston Martin race car at the famous Silverstone event in 2010. In 2014, Rowan Atkinson was involved in a serious head-on collision while racing a vintage Ford Falcon sprint car. Luckily, the comic walked away with only minor injuries. The car itself was totaled.
11. Walter Cronkite
Believe it or not, iconic newsman Walter Cronkite was an avid race car driver and respected wheelman. What’s interesting about Walter Cronkite is that he accomplished most of his racing wins before he was a household name as the host of the CBS Evening News in the 1960s and 1970s. Back in 1959, Walter Cronkite took third place driving a Volvo PV444 at an endurance race held in Lime Park, Connecticut. Later that same year, he co-drove a Zagato-bodied Lancia Appia in the 12-hours of Sebring race, where his team finished the race in 40th place. Still, Walter Cronkite remained an avid race car driver his entire life and continued to compete in celebrity events as he grew older. Eventually, though, he traded in his race car for a sailboat and became an avid yachtsman, competing at regattas around the United States.
10. Tom Cruise
Tom Cruise is so passionate about race car driving that he turned his love of the sport into the passion project Days of Thunder, a 1990 movie about stock car racing. Tom Cruise was inspired to take up race car driving by his friend and co-star in the 1986 film The Colour of Money, actor Paul Newman. However, despite his love of racing, Tom Cruise was known as a bad driver. So bad that Tom Cruise earned the nickname among other drivers of “See Cruise Crash.” The problem, according to the actor’s driving instructors, he was too aggressive behind the wheel. Cruise himself has blamed his struggles behind the wheel on his dyslexia. Regardless of the reason, Tom Cruise eventually had to give up racing as the movie studios he worked for refused to insure him if he continued to pursue the risky sport. Still, Tom Cruise remains a passionate race fan and has even appeared on the BBC television show Top Gear.
9. Paul Walker
It was the height of irony that Paul Walker, star of The Fast and the Furious film series, died in a car crash. Yet before his death, Paul Walker was not only the star of movies that featured car racing; he was himself a race car driver and owner of a respected race car team. A talented and skilled driver on the racetrack, The Fast and the Furious star competed in the Redline Time Attack racing series driving a modified BMW M3, and he was co-owner of the Always Evolving speed shop and racing team, which still races today after his death. The team dedicates each of its races to the memory of Paul Walker.
8. Frankie Muniz
Frankie Muniz was beloved as the cute middle child and titular character of Malcolm in The Middle. It seemed like Frankie would go on from starring in his own show to enjoy a wild career in film and television, but as he worked through the awkwardness of adolescence, he grew to appreciate the finer things in life, notably, horsepower. One thing that is beneficial for racing drivers is a smaller stature. Frankie stands at 5’5″, and was able to slide comfortably into the cockpit of various race cars. Frankie has competed in several racing series, including formula racing, where he enjoyed a Top 10 finish in the 2009 Formula Atlantic Championship. Frankie is back in front of the camera these days, including a recent appearance in Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! We imagine he is hoping for another great TV series.
7. Jason Priestley
Jason Priestley is a fascinating celebrity. He made his money acting, but in the process, set trends in American culture. Everything about his character Brandon Walsh on Beverly Hills 90210, was emulated by dudes around the world. The fashion trends from that show were a worldwide phenomenon. Jason enjoyed the fame, and he did what any Canadian kid would do who grew up a fan of auto racing. He started racing himself. Jason considered himself a hobbyist, but he did race competitively, and he was almost killed in 2003 when he hit a wall coming off a turn in an Indy car doing close to 180 mph. After his accident, Jason moved away from life behind the wheel, yet stayed in the racing world as a team owner. As a co-owner of FAZZT, the team enjoyed a 10th place finish in the 2010 Indianapolis 500.
6. James Garner
James Garner was a racing enthusiast and the owner of a professional racing team that competed three seasons in some of the world’s most prestigious endurance races; however, his true passion was for off-road motorsports. The Army veteran didn’t mind being in the dirt, and he was instrumental in helping to grow the popularity of the famed Baja 500, a race made more popular in recent years thanks to the documentary Dust to Glory (2005). Regarding his time behind the wheel, James enjoyed more than a few races in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was offered the honor of driving the pace car for the Indianapolis 500 on three different occasions. That’s just as beneficial to the sport of racing as it is to the lucky driver, but who could say no to driving the Indy 500 Pace Car?
5. Steve McQueen
How could Steve McQueen not be a race car driver? The guy seemed destined to sit behind the wheel. Steve McQueen always possessed the edge needed by a great race driver. To put it in 21st-century terms, he was a troubled youth. He did time in several reform schools, and remarkably, once he got out of school, the reformation was complete. Steve McQueen was the definition of cool in the 1960s and early 1970s, and for a time, he was the most popular movie star in the business. Most car enthusiasts will equate Steve McQueen to Frank Bullitt, and when you think Bullitt, you think badass, pure muscle, 1968 Ford Mustang. After that film, Mustang sales went through the roof. Steve was adept at driving cars and enjoyed impressive finishes in endurance races. He also raced motorcycles, preferring the off-road variety—before the days of MotoX.
4. Gene Hackman
Gene Hackman can pretty much do it all: comedy, drama, car racing. The man who has scored two Oscars, and since retired from acting, enjoyed a career that spanned multiple decades of acting, as well as auto racing. According to Hollywood lore, Gene fell in like with the idea of racing cars after he filmed The French Connection, in which he did a lot of his own stunt driving. The pinnacle of his racing career occurred in 1983 when he raced for Dan Gurney’s team in the 24 Hours of Daytona. The endurance races are best fit for individuals who are hobbyists, or only race part-time, as the various vehicle classifications allow drivers to get behind the wheel of a vehicle they can master. That’s often where you’ll see actors make the transition, including the man at #3.
3. Patrick Dempsey
McDreamy races cars? Doesn’t everyone remember Patrick driving that lawnmower in Can’t Buy Me Love? It was prophecy, was it not? Patrick Dempsey is possibly the most talented driver on this list, though he’s likely not the most well-known for his driving skill. Patrick has driven in some of the most prestigious endurance races in the world. In fact, he has competed in the most prestigious, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Le Mans gave birth to endurance racing, and all other races pale in comparison to the history of the 24-hour marathon that is run by teams annually. Patrick has also competed in the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, and in 2011, he took third place overall in the Rolex-sponsored 24 Hours at Daytona. To stir more proof into the pudding, Patrick was driving for Porsche. That kind of says it all, doesn’t it?
2. Paul Newman
The legendary Paul Newman passed away in 2008. Yet in 2000, he was competing in the Petit Le Mans. And in 2006, he became the oldest competitor to ever start the Rolex 24, at age 81. Legend. Anyone who knows racing is familiar with Newman/Haas Racing, and if there was any confusion, yes, it is that Newman. Paul Newman was a legend on the race track. He owned nearly as many decorations in racing as he did in acting. He was that good. Patrick Dempsey showed a similar skill set to Paul, but he’ll never rival Paul’s longevity, nor his accomplishments on the track. It only made sense that Paul’s final role was voicing Doc Hudson in Cars. Addressing all of Paul’s on-the-track accolades: he finished second overall in the 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans and placed first in class at the 1995 24 Hours of Daytona.
1. James Dean
You can’t take the suck out of what follows. This list might not exist if it weren’t for James Dean. The actor had a deep passion for auto racing. James began racing before he shot Rebel Without a Cause, and couldn’t wait to get back to the track after filming wrapped. He loved it so much; Warner Brothers contractually forbade him from his racing habit until he finished shooting Giant. James was the first actor to venture onto the race track boldly, and he was focused on becoming a respected race driver once he completed his work on that particular film. A fan of Porsche, James bought a 550 Sypder with the intention of racing it. He never enjoyed the opportunity—at least, not on a sanctioned track. James was killed driving his new Porsche to Salinas, California, to participate in a racing event.