For Alex Gurney the excitement of being in Le Mans ’66 wasn’t simply sharing the screen with Hollywood icons in his first acting appearance. A champion race-car driver himself (the 2007 and 2009 GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series), Gurney has engine oil in his blood: his father Dan was the first of three drivers to win in the four racing disciplines of Sports Cars, Formula One, NASCAR and Indy cars. He was also a Ford teammate of Ken Miles (Christian Bale) and won the race the year after the historic events of Le Mans ’66. So, for Gurney Jr. Le Mans ’66 was both a chance to show what he could do on the track and a unique journey back into his family history.
How did you get involved in the movie?
“I hadn’t done any acting of any kind, or stunt work, going into it. An old friend, Rich Rutherford, called and said, ‘I’m working on this movie and I know there’s the part of your dad in it. You should try out for it.’ I learned a little bit more about it and thought it sounded like a great idea. I went up to Fox and did my audition and found out a few weeks later that I’d got it.”
Your dad was driving another Ford in the ’66 race – how did he look back on those incredible, astonishing events?
“You know, to be honest, he probably talked more about the race in 1967, because he won that one! That year was the culmination of all the experience – having done Le Mans for many years. But in ’66, he had pole position, which was a big deal. That race, it was really when Le Mans was at the height of its popularity and this race meant a lot to all the people in America, especially. This idea of one of the big auto giants really
taking on Ferrari – that was an important moment in our history.”
What was it about Le Mans in the ’60s that made it such a beloved race?
“It was difficult and very tough on the cars – very different from today. The danger was at its height in ’66. All the years leading up to it were super-dangerous – guys were getting killed all the time. So, that added to the drama of the whole thing. It was a golden era.”
What do you think your dad would make of the movie?
“I think he’d love it. I think it’s great that Hollywood is taking this on. I think he’d love to see it up on the big screen.”
How much did you work with Bale and Damon?
“Bale was a lot of fun to work with because he was in the car a lot of the time and I got to hang out and talk to him. He’s a big racing fan and he’s done a lot of driving and motorcycle-riding. And he looks so much like Miles! It’s just the perfect casting. Damon I didn’t get to work with as much, as he wasn’t in so many of the driving scenes, but he did a great job too.”
Were you impressed with Bale’s skills behind the wheel?
“I was! You know, like any character he does, people know how deep he gets into it. We were at Willow Springs filming and in between scenes sometimes he would
take out one of the road cars and say: ‘I’d like to do some laps…’ And he’d be turning laps while everyone was just relaxing! He was out there getting a feel for the track, going hard. You could see it, he was going for it.”
How did it feel being on set in that stunning recreation of the Le Mans pit lane from 1966, wearing your father’s clothes from that race?
“A little bit of everything: an honour, a little freaky just walking into the dressing room and seeing the seat that looked just like my dad’s, with his name on it. And wearing his stuff and then in the car. The car looked exactly like the real thing! And all of a sudden you’re stood there in the Le Mans pit lane and it feels real. It was incredible – one of those things that will stick with me forever.”
It was your dad who started the tradition of spraying champagne when you win, wasn’t it? After Le Mans in 1967?
“Yes, he did! In fact, we have the actual bottle on display at our shop in Santa Ana. Obviously winning a Le Mans is a big deal and he was so excited and he had Henry Ford and his wife standing there, and all these people down in front of him, and all of a sudden he just let it rip and sprayed the crowd! I guess he wanted to do something different. And then that became the worldwide tradition, from motor-racing to in the changing rooms at the Superbowl.”
Another driver whose dad was a teammate of Ken Miles, he raced to take part in this movie…
A former professional racer himself, Jeff Bucknum was lured out of retirement to be a stunt driver on Le Mans ’66 because his father, Ronnie, was on the same team as Ken Miles (Christian Bale) for the real-life race that inspired the movie. Like Gurney, he was recruited by stunt driving legend Rich Rutherford – someone he had known back in his racing days and at the Skip Barber Racing School, where Rutherford was once an instructor. It was “super-easy” for the 52-year-old Californian to say yes to driving a note-perfect recreation of his dad’s car, for what he says was one of his greatest experiences on the track – and he enjoyed the chance to work alongside Bale, too.
How is Ken Miles perceived by modern drivers?
“He is a hidden gem of a historical driver. I remember him from the times my dad talked about him, which was often as they were very close friends. I was actually born the year that my dad finished third at Le Mans – the year of this whole story. I never met Ken Miles but of course Dad would tell stories about him. For me, growing up, his name was very normal to hear. Legendary, really. But for many, he’s not. And that’s a sad thing. Unless you’re a really crazy racing enthusiast, his name doesn’t get passed around like [Mario] Andretti or Stirling Moss. My dad passed away in 1996, I was still quite a young guy. My mum is still alive and my dad and my mum had been together since they were teenagers, so she often tells stories about how close him and Ken Miles were.”
How does your mum feel about this movie?
“She’s very excited! She’s always been excited – not only for this but for my whole career. I was racing go-karts when my dad passed away. I hadn’t even raced a car yet when he passed away. I was fortunate enough to do the things I wanted to do before I retired. I wanted to race Le Mans, which I got to. I wanted to race the Indy 500, which I got to do twice. I won the 12 Hours of Sebring. I even raced the Nurburgring, not the big track but I got to race over there, and that was the first track that my dad ever got to race a Formula 1 car on. Imagine that! Your first race is at the Nurburgring!”
Did doing this give you a real understanding of how dangerous the racing was for your dad and those guys back then?
“Yeah. When I raced Le Mans they’d already put two chicanes on the Mulsanne Straight, to slow it down, but back when my dad drove it, it really was the Mulsanne Straight – right down at over 200mph, in cars that were not nearly crash-worthy. It was all so completely different. And the other thing that was amazing was that in this day and age you have three drivers that do the 24 hours at Le Mans. But back then it was two drivers! And you’re talking about a time when physical fitness wasn’t as important as drinking, smoking and sex. So I’m sure most of them were half-drunk the night before and smoking and hopping into cars. I don’t understand how my dad and his co-drivers coped for 24 hours.”
Christian Bale did a lot of his own driving, alongside you guys, right?
“The times that we were doing things on the same location we did have situations where Christian Bale had to be in the mix with us, and he did well. What was great about it was that he came in with confidence, but he didn’t come in with arrogance. He was confident, and that’s what we want – because you never want someone who is tentative. But he was very respectful, always asking us for tips on things he could do to make sure he was in the right place, which was nice. You know, when he showed up in the morning, he’d be all ‘Hi’ and smiling at people. Then he’d disappear and get into his driver’s suit, and when he came back he was literally Ken Miles. He was in character from the moment he walked out of his trailer.”
His dad was a triple Le Mans champion, so Derek Hill knows all about the greatest race…
Another former professional racer, Derek Hill jumped at the chance to get involved in Le Mans ’66 – the big screen recreation of the real-life race in which his father, Phil Hill, had participated. In fact, his dad won Le Mans on three occasions – 1958, 1961 and 1962 – as well as becoming Formula 1 World Champion in 1961. The opportunity to almost physically go back in time, to production designer Francois Audouy’s detailed recreations of the Le Mans pit lane and race track, was too good to pass up, too. Here, Hill reflects on his memories of the real thing, plus the intensity and brilliance of Christian Bale…
What did you feel when you heard this project was going to happen – nervous or excited?
“Really all of the above. I didn’t give it much credibility at first. I didn’t think much of it becoming a reality. But then I started to read more into it and thought, ‘Well, who am I going to contact to get my name in there?’ Because, of course, it was something I would love to be a part of – it’s right there in the window of my father’s racing career! There’s something really romantic and exciting about these period films and period film sets. Not very often do big Hollywood racing films get the greenlight, so it’s an event you don’t want to miss. Plus, I had a new baby on the way and that ratchets up the anxiety for making a living! And I thought, ‘Well, this would be perfect timing to do something like this.’ It was very fortunate.”
There’s something quite beautifully circular about that timing, isn’t there? A story set in your Dad’s era funding the next generation?
“Absolutely. It had been about 10 years since my father passed away. And you think, how many years have gone by since movies like Grand Prix were made, or Steve McQueen’s Le Mans? I don’t believe things sometimes until you show up to a set and see that it’s for real. It makes you realise it’s actually happening!”
Your Dad won Le Mans three times. How did you feel to be recreating this kind of racing?
“What it really did bring up was so much nostalgia. I mean, having this beautiful pit lane built right there in the desert [at Agua Dulce]. It was such an authentic recreation of the original Le Mans pit lane that I visited with my father. He took me to Le Mans when I was about 14 years old and that moment is so embedded in my memory – having an all-access pass and being able to walk on a live, hot pit lane during the race… You know, this was the late ‘80s, so the rules were so much less strict back then. So this was like going back in time and reliving it in a very strange, dreamlike way. I was just thinking, ‘If only my father could have seen this…’ They pulled out all the stops to make it just right.”
We’re hearing a lot that Christian Bale was really into the driving…
“Christian really was in the driver mode because he was playing the driver, the main character of Ken Miles. Obviously, he had to be in the car quite a bit, or on a rig with a camera. Whereas Matt Damon’s character, Carroll Shelby, was more a businessman than anything. So I didn’t really see him behind the wheel. But it seemed that any opportunity he could, Christian would get in the car and just take off, run it through the gears, right up to the red line. He has that feel of a driver, I could sense. There were a couple of times that I had to follow him. We’d be along a runway at an airport and he would just take off! I would have to just take off after him because I didn’t know where he was going! I could tell that he has fun with it. And he has an intensity… I think it’s unique to racing drivers, especially from that era. I got that from my father. I could see it. It was like an intensity that is sort of tied up into your survival instincts, that racing drivers from that era had to have, you know? And I thought that Christian played that really well. He seems to be that character and person in real life. I don’t know him, but he comes across that way. I thought he played the part just brilliantly.”
Famous as Top Gear’s original driving ace, The Stig, plus 007’s man behind the wheel…
Ben Collins is best known as the former mysterious man behind the helmet of ‘The Stig’ – the previously anonymous driver in the BBC’s hit motoring series Top Gear. But he has had a long and varied career outside of that, from serving in the army – including a stint as a driving instructor for the Special Forces – to doing stunt driving on the James Bond franchise. He was a natural hire for Le Mans ’66 stunt coordinator Robert Nagle to make, because in addition to his impeccable talent behind the wheel, he has also actually raced at Le Mans, an experience he describes as so intense that, “after a couple of laps it feels like you’ve been boxing the whole time…”
You’ve done movies before, driving for 007 and more. How did you come to Le Mans ’66?
“My interest in it goes back a long way, but my direct involvement came through the stunt coordinator, who is a good friend of mine, Robert Nagle. He knows that I’ve raced at Le Mans four times, that I work in films as a stunt driver as well, so we met and he put me into the team. They also wanted people to appear on camera and I was very fortunate to get on camera, as Christian’s [Ken Miles’] teammate, Denny Hulme, in the film.”
How is Ken Miles perceived by drivers?
“I didn’t know huge amounts about him. He was a mercurial character. To aficionados, they will know the story much better than I do. But that’s the cool part of the story – he really was not a superstar driver. In fact, he was thrust into that position around superstar drivers, like Denny Hulme, who was a Formula 1 driver. So in some respects, despite the fact that he was the star of that Le Mans race and that team, on the world scene he didn’t have that kind of huge reputation. That’s what makes the story so interesting. The big bosses at Ford weren’t entirely convinced and he had to kind of prove himself all the time. He wasn’t very corporate. He just did what he did best and didn’t give a damn about the rest of it.”
In the movie you are executing sequences in meticulously re-created versions of the cars of the time. Did that give you more of an understanding of some of the conditions these guys drove in?
“Yes. The first time I raced Le Mans I was dong 220mph, and you’re aware that if something goes wrong, with you surrounded by trees, if something affects the downforce – if one of the wheels comes off or something – all the grip the car is creating will suddenly go the other way round and you will go into the air. At that speed you are going to hit something really hard and bad things will happen from there. I was well aware of it. We knew what we were getting into. And it was absolutely fantastic! The shoot was brilliantly run. Robert is a brilliant coordinator.”
How did you find Damon and Bale to work with?
“Fantastic. Both of them are lovely guys. It was an absolute privilege being around them and just seeing them do what they do. For Matt, we didn’t really get to see him driving because Carroll Shelby is the designer in the film, but he is extraordinary as Shelby. And Christian definitely went for it. I think that’s his nature. He goes all out for that role and he clearly loves driving. The only hard part was trying to get him out of the car! He was loving it. He’s got a natural talent for it, too. In the sequences he was doing we had him coming into the pits, hitting his mark, ripping out of the pits – all that stuff. That’s brilliant because it’s really him. There’s no fudging it.”
In the script, there’s a great trust between Miles and Shelby. How important is that in racing?
“It’s hugely important. That handover from the technician to the driver is as important and fundamental as it can be, because when they look you in the eye it’s, ‘Is it going to hold together, or is it going to fall apart and kill me?’ Also, there’s the bromance – or whatever you want to call it! Basically, it’s the driver who makes the car look as good as it can possibly look. The driver shows the ability and achievement of the engineer. They are intrinsically linked. A good driver can’t do anything without a good car, so again you’ve got that enormous faith in the engineer that they have prepared it the very best they can. There is a very special relationship between the two. Carroll Shelby was unique, had a vision of what he could do, and the reason he pushed so hard to have Ken in the car was because he knew Ken was the kind of guy who would stop at nothing to deliver that performance.”