Motorsports Movie Unfinished: Steve McQueen’s “Day of the Champion”

My previous blog post was about motorsports movies, how the reel world portrayed the real world of auto racing.

This one is about what I guess is an un-reel subject – the motorsports movie that Steve McQueen started and the studio stopped, though not until after a million feet of footage had been shot!

The movie was “Day of the Champion,” and would have been McQueen’s take on Grand Prix racing.

In the new book “Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool” (edited by Marshall Terrill and published by Dalton Watson Fine Books of Deerfield, Illinois), Robert Relyea, who worked for McQueen’s Solar Productions, writes about the race -- John Frankenheimer and MGM vs. McQueen and Warner Bros. -- to produce a movie with Grand Prix racing as its theme.

“No one in Hollywood wants to make a movie on the same subject, at the same time, as another studio – especially about racing,” Relyea writes. “There might be enough of an audience for one film, but the market could not bear two. It became an ugly fight to see who could complete their film first.”

How’s this for ugly: While McQueen was off finishing the filming of “The Sand Pebbles,” McQueen’s neighbor, James Garner, was cast as the star of Frankenheimer’s movie, “Grand Prix.” When “Grand Prix” raced into theaters, “Day of the Champion” was put on the shelf (but wouldn’t you love to see the footage that was shot?).

Relyea writes that when “Grand Prix” took the checkered flag, McQueen didn’t talk to Garner for nearly two years!

If there’s a happy Hollywood ending to this tale, it’s that a few years later, McQueen did make a movie about motorsports, the much revered 1971 film “Le Mans.”

Photo Credit: Michael Daines

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