By Greg Niemann
The Baja 1000, the “Grandaddy of Off-road Races,” will celebrate its 50th anniversary in November 2017. Through the years many well-known participants helped popularize the grueling event, including top off-roaders, world renowned race car drivers and motorcyclists, and also a few celebrities.
Getting “down and dirty” in the Baja 1000 have been actors Paul Newman, James Garner and Steve McQueen, as well few Hollywood offspring, including McQueen’s son Chad, Clark Gable’s son John Clark Gable, and Bobby Darin’s son Dodd Darin. For the elder McQueen it was a natural extension of his love for racing.
Millennials likely never heard of him. Even to Generation Xers he was a name from the past. But to us older folk, actor Steve McQueen was “macho personified” often referred to as “The King of Cool.” He starred in numerous movies in the 1960s and ‘70s becoming the world’s highest paid and most popular actor at the time.
Born in Indiana in 1930, the morose icon with boyish good looks was one of the original “The Magnificent Seven” (An incredibly popular tough guy movie (just now remade for Fall 2016 release).
Among his many movies, McQueen starred in “Bullitt,” “The Getaway” (Where he met his second wife, co-star Ali McGraw), “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “Papillon,” (which earned him a Golden Globe award nomination), “The Great Escape,” and “The Towering Inferno.” He received an Academy Award nomination for his starring role in “The Sand Pebbles.”
A Baja Connection
But what a lot of his long-time fans may not know is that the adventurous McQueen had a relationship with Baja California. He spent a lot of time on motorcycles and off-road vehicles in Baja and raced in the 1969 Baja 1000. He returned to Baja on his deathbed in an attempt to fight off the cancer that had invaded his body.
Son of a stunt pilot father, he was raised by his grandparents and then sent to be reunited with his mother and her new husband. It was a difficult time and McQueen got into lots of teenage trouble, eventually being sent to Boys Republic reform school in Chino, California. (In later years he made numerous visits and donations of cash and supplies to Boys Republic.)
He left Boys Republic at age 16 and drifted around the country the following year, working as a roughneck, lumberjack, and even a towel boy in a brothel. He joined the U.S. Marines at age 17. Still adverse to discipline, he got demoted a few times and spent 41 days in the brig before he “turned it around” and went on to get an honorable discharge. Using the G.I. Bill to study acting after his release in 1950, the former “bad boy” soon got bigger and bigger roles.
Wanted to be a race car driver
McQueen always enjoyed living life to the fullest and was an avid motorcycle and race car enthusiast. He performed many of his own movie stunts, including the famous car chase in “Bullitt” and the exciting motorcycle chase in “The Great Escape.”
McQueen had a remote cabin in the desert near Palm Springs (before he built a home there) where he’d go to let off steam and race his numerous vehicles. For a screening on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” McQueen drove the famous host around a desert area in a dune buggy at high speed. Sullivan later said, "That was a 'helluva' ride!"
McQueen considered being a professional race car driver. He came third in a British Touring Car Championship outing. In 1970 at Sebring, he and co-driver Peter Revson won their class and missed winning overall by only 23 seconds.
Later that same year McQueen was scheduled to drive a Porsche 917 with the inimitable Jackie Stewart at LeMans, but film backers threatened to pull their support if he did.
But there was still off-road racing in which McQueen loved to compete, on either a motorcycle (a BSA Hornet or a Triumph 500 cc, and later a Husqvarna) or four wheels. He raced in many top off-road races, including the Mint 400 in Nevada before he tackled the SCORE Baja 1000.
The 1969 Baja 1000
He entered the Baja 1000 adventure accompanied by co-driver Harold Daigh, riding a custom off-road vehicle called the “Baja Boot.” The Boot had been specifically designed for the Baja event by leading off-road vehicle designer Vic Hickey.
Prior to the race Hickey gave McQueen some specific pointers on driving the Baja Boot. Journalist Tom Madigan’s Motor Trend magazine article mentioned the lessons: “Without showing the slightest fear, McQueen slid behind the wheel of the powerful machine and took to the dirt with a vengeance. It was not McQueen's driving that impressed me, but the fact that whenever he screwed-up or abused the race car, Hickey would jump in his face and chew his tail up one side and down the other. McQueen did not react like a prima donna movie star, but would stand quiet like a child getting instructions from a parent.”
Co-driver Harold Daigh, later technical director for both SCORE International and the Baja 1000, said about the movie star, “We spent about six weeks prerunning, and we covered about 4,000 miles. He was just a really regular guy and a fierce competitor. He just wanted to be known just as a real race driver, trying to do the best he could.” Daigh admitted the pair got lost for two weeks while prerunning and camped out in various places on the peninsula.
Once the race got underway McQueen and Daigh were holding a solid overall position, but, with just 237 of the 1,000 miles completed, a broken transmission put them out of the event. They made their way to Rancho Santa Ynez in the Cataviña area where they secured one of the rustic sleeping rooms while awaiting help.
Over 60 rare vehicles
Steve McQueen was inducted in the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1978. In 1971, McQueen's Solar Productions funded the classic motorcycle documentary “On Any Sunday,” in which the movie star is featured, along with racing legends Mert Lawwill and Malcom Smith. The same year, McQueen also appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine riding a Husqvarna dirt bike.
He was a serious collector of cars, trucks and motorcycles, and reportedly owned more than 60 rare vehicles, as well as a few airplanes. While some were top-of-the-line performance cars, others were more utilitarian in nature, such as the 1952 Chevrolet pickup truck and custom camper. The green Chevy pickup, which was the last of the star’s vehicles he rode in, sold at auction in 2016 for just short of $100,000.
McQueen’s Baja experiences did not end with his racing and he became a brief resident of Plaza del Mar on the Baja coast in 1980.
The Plaza del Mar and Pyramid Resort, now a housing development on a bluff at K58 (about a mile north of La Fonda), was for a long time a clinic, more specifically a laetrile clinic, where cancer patients could make one final attempt to find a cure after all other avenues had been exhausted. Not legal in the States, the controversial treatment still attracted those with but a few strands of hope remaining.
One early patient was Steve McQueen.
By 1980, McQueen had contracted mesothelioma, a rare and painful form of lung cancer. One of the main causes is asbestos, a substance the actor had been around much of his life.
In fact, while in the Aleutian Islands with the Marine Corps, McQueen had been sentenced to six weeks in the brig where he was assigned a work detail in the engine room of a ship. He had to rip out and replace the asbestos linings on the pipes. He later mentioned that the air was so thick with asbestos particles that the men could hardly breathe.
By the time the cancer is detectable, the patient usually has just months to live.
After told his condition was inoperable, he went to Baja and underwent a three-month crash program at what was then called the American Biologics-Mexico SA Medical Center. At Plaza Del Mar, McQueen was housed in a double wide trailer near the bluff top. Before the area was developed for homes, some of us would show visitors the exact trailer.
His treatment included the powerful B17 laetrile, animal cell injections, over 100 vitamin pills a day, diet and exercise. Unfortunately, it did him little good. While laetrile clinics did have some anecdotal successes reported, there has been little documented evidence to those claims.
McQueen’s condition deteriorated and he left the Plaza Del Mar and shortly went to another clinic in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. There he died on November 7, 1980 at age 50 after undergoing surgery to remove a tumor. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.
The Plaza Del Mar has been a hotel with tennis courts, swimming pool, restaurant and bar. Twice it had been a clinic. While Steve McQueen loved the Baja dirt road challenges, it was the Plaza Del Mar on the coast where the popular actor met a challenge he could not conquer.
Greg Niemann, a long-time Baja writer, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit www.gregniemann.com.