A Poor Man’s Grand Prix

In 1966 director John Frankenheimer, a race car enthusiast, was able to realize a long-cherished dream: to make a film about the Grand Prix racing circuit focusing on several drivers and their personal lives off the track. The result, Grand Prix, is still considered the ultimate racing film, due to its spectacular cinematography that puts the viewer in the driver’s seat with its Cinerama format, split-screen technique and immersive audio. According to the director, it cost about $10.5 million to make, was a box office hit and garnered three Oscars for Best Sound, Best Film Editing and Best Sound Effects. What many people failed to notice was that director Roger Corman had already made a film about the Grand Prix racing circuit three years earlier entitled The Young Racers (1963), which was made on location in Europe like Frankenheimer’s epic with exciting racing footage from Monte Carlo, Monaco, Rome, Rouen (France) and Spa (Belgium) and it cost less than half a million to make. Sure, it was a B-movie from American International Pictures (AIP) but it had a glossy, big budget look to it unlike the typical AIP product and it added some invocative twists to a formulaic genre film that often seemed influenced by the aesthetics of the French New Wave (Corman has always been a fan of European art cinema).

Although The Young Racers can’t compare to Grand Prix in terms of its visual and technique virtuosity, it is actually more successful in exploring the psychology of its two main protagonists compared to Frankenheimer’s film which featured more than eight major characters who emerged as bland stereotypes in a story that was more focused on the sound and the fury of the racetrack. The Young Racers is also a briskly paced 84 minute entertainment and Grand Prix is an almost three hour experience that works better on the big screen than it does in your home entertainment center.

In Corman’s film, the central character is Joe Machin (William Campbell), the currently reigning race car champion, who, as described by one observer is “arrogant, ruthless, crude and altogether a hateful human being.” Although married to Sesia (Marie Versini), Joe seduces and discards numerous mistresses and race car groupies like Kleenex but Lea (Margrete Robsahm), his current paramour, is determined to become his permanent mainstay.

William Campbell stars as champion race car driver Joe Machin in THE YOUNG RACERS (1963), directed by Roger Corman.

Joe soon has a challenger in the form of Stephen Children (Mark Damon), a former race car driver turned writer, who has come to Monaco with his secretary Henny (Luana Anders) to track down his missing girlfriend. When he discovers that she left him for Joe, was quickly discarded and became an alcoholic wreck, Steve decides to take revenge. “Somebody has to expose the spoilers,” he tells Henny. “I’ll expose this Machin and show that he’s a little tin god.”

To accomplish this, Steve introduces himself to the Grand Prix hero and tells him he is writing a novel about an unbeatable racing champion and Joe is the perfect model for his protagonist. Amused by this stranger, Joe allows Steve to string along and observe him on and off the track. He even encourages Steve to compete on the track with him once he learns the writer was a former racer and eventually they prove to be a formidable team. It all falls apart when Joe learns Steve’s true motives for profiling him and their rivalry comes to a head in a climatic Grand Prix race at Aintree, England.

A scene from Roger Corman’s THE YOUNG RACERS (1963) featuring Milo Quesada (left), Luana Anders as Heddy and Mark Damon as Steve Children.

The plot might sound like a predictable soap opera/melodrama in description but the screenplay by W. Wright Campbell (the real-life brother of William Campbell, who is cast as Joe’s brother Bob in the film) provides some complexity and moral considerations for not only the two male rivals but for the women in their lives who often remain unexplored in genre efforts like this. For example, a dinner scene at Joe’s villa breaks up into two separate factions. The men retire to the bar to smoke, drink and talk about manly things while Joe’s wife Sesia has an usually candid conversation with her husband’s mistress Lea about the man they both share. Their dialogue reveals both women to be polar opposites in their approach to sharing Joe and becomes an intriguing philosophical debate between a wife and a mistress.

Margrete Robsahm (left) plays Joe’s free-spirited mistress Lea and Marie Versini stars as the race car champion’s trophy wife in THE YOUNG RACERS (1963).

Another unexpected scene occurs in The Young Racers when Joe takes Henny on a private picnic and makes a pass at her. Her deflection of this and her response to him makes it clear she has no interest in being another conquest and she offers her friendship instead. What could have been an attempted rape scenario turns into a surprising moment of truth for Joe, who ends up being impressed by Henny’s direct, no-nonsense demeanor. Little moments like this inject some Pre-Feminist movement attitudes into a film set in a male dominated universe.

Luana Anders & William Campbell star in the 1963 race car drama THE YOUNG RACERS.

Of course, not all of the dialogue in The Young Racers is subtle or literate and some lines are laughably pretentious like Sesia’s comment “Sometimes tears are wiser than those who shed them” or Bob’s comments about working for his world famous sibling: “Why does the name brother suggest some idiot purity? Why does a relationship through marriage carry with it a virtue I can’t possess?”

Director Roger Corman took a small crew and a few actors (pictured above) to Europe for his 1963 race car drama THE YOUNG RACERS.

In 1963 Roger Corman turned out five feature films and The Young Racers was mad between production on The Raven (1963) and The Terror (1963). The director later admitted the film was basically an excuse to enjoy a brief holiday at the Grand Prix races. With a few actors and a tiny crew, Corman traveled to Europe and his technical team included cinematographer Floyd Crosby (who won an Oscar for his work on F.W. Murnau’s Tabu: A Story of the South Seas, 1931), assistant director Charles B. Griffith (who was better known as Corman’s screenwriter on A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors), sound editor Francis Ford Coppola, property master Menahem Golan (the future movie mogul behind Cannon Films with his cousin Yoram Globus) and second assistant director Robert Towne, who soon switched to screenwriting full-time, garnering four Oscar nominations for Best Writing and winning the award for Chinatown (1974). Coppola, Golan and Towne have all credited Corman with helping them get started in the film industry and The Young Racers was an early stepping stone in their careers.

Bob Machin (W. Wright Campbell) doesn’t approve of Lea (Margrete Robsahm), his brother’s new mistress, in THE YOUNG RACERS (1963).

Corman later recounted in Ed Naha’s book, The Films of Roger Corman: Brilliance on a Budget, the many problems involved in making The Young Racers. “For instance, I made a deal with Sunbeam,” the director stated, “to use one of their sports cars, a Sunbeam Alpine, in the racing sequence that was to take place in Monte Carlo. It would be good publicity for them and would lend authenticity to the movie. Bill Campbell, the lead racer, was supposed to pull into a scene in this snazzy car…Chuck Griffith, who was my assistant director, was supposed to drive the car up there, meeting us. The first day out, he totaled the car near Provence. Totaled it. Poor Bill Campbell. He never got to even sit in the car.”

Race car driver Steve Children (Mark Damon) receives assistance for his vehicle in THE YOUNG RACERS (1963).

Coppola, who had previously done some editing work for Corman on Battle Beyond the Sun (1959), a recut, English-dubbed version of the Russian sci-fi adventure Nebo Zovyot (with new scenes added), wanted to make himself indispensable to the director by pretending to be accomplished at various filmmaking skills. Coppola recalled that “when Roger wanted to go to Europe to make this picture, he asked me if I knew a sound man. I told him that I was a sound man. I got the job and immediately went home, got hold of the book on the Perfectone sound recorder, and started reading, ‘Push button,,,A.” So I went to Europe and recorded the racing footage.”

Lea (Margrete Robsahm) refuses to have sex on a tombstone with Joe (William Campbell) and is rejected as his mistress for her refusal in THE YOUNG RACERS (1963).

Unfortunately, there were some sound issues with sections of The Young Racers, which couldn’t be reshot due to budget and time constrains, so some selective redubbing was required. According to DVD Talk reviewer Stuart Galbraith IV in his review of the film, “When Irish actor Patrick Magee (A Clockwork Orange) shows up near the end, I suspected his voice was dubbed by someone else, and in a scene between Magee and Mark Damon it suddenly hit me: Magee might very well be dubbed, but clearly Damon is dubbed as well – by none other than William Shatner. (Corman had made The Intruder with Shatner the year before.) I have no idea why the decision was made to do this, but it’s so well done technically that this reviewer didn’t catch on until the film was nearly over.” To my knowledge, Galbraith’s comments have never been confirmed by Corman or any cast or crew member and could be Galbraith’s opinion and not fact. Still, it makes sense in light of Coppola’s inexperience as a sound editor.

Despite this, Coppola used the situation to his advantage, relating what happened next in Chris Nashawaty’s excellent oral history, Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King of the B Movie. “Knowing that Roger often made use of one film’s equipment and personnel for a second production right afterward,” Coppola said, “I wrote the basis of the script for 1963’s Dementia 13 and showed it to him. When it turned out that he had to return to L.A. in order to make another film, my gamble paid off, and I was given the chance to take the equipment and direct the film in Ireland.” As a result, cast members William Campbell, Luana Anders and Patrick Magee soon found themselves going directly from a race car melodrama into a murder mystery with an axe murderer on the loose in Ireland.  

Campbell, who made his film debut in The Breaking Point in 1950, never achieved A-list status in Hollywood but he certainly enjoyed a long and prolific career in TV and film, often playing heavies and criminals as in Cell 2455, Death Row (1955). I have always thought that Campbell looked like a cross between Liberace and Conway Twitty during his rockabilly phase. Most sci-fi fans know him for his appearance in two classic Star Trek episodes, “The Squire of Gothos” and “The Trouble with Tribbles” but Campbell is also famous for appearing in Elvis Presley’s first film, Love Me Tender (1956). The actor is ideally cast as the sneering braggart hero of The Young Racers and constantly makes shameless sexist remarks such as “I like this new breed of broad they’re making over here,” or cynical quips about his fans and the racing world like, “Why do you think they line the road? To discuss road adhesion and tork? No, they want to see a guy spill his guts all over the concrete.”

William Campbell plays the Liberace-like Trelane in the Star Trek TV episode, “The Squire of Gothos” (1967).

Yet, something interesting happens to Machin’s character in the course of the film as his interaction with Steve makes him question his own relentless pursuit of fame, money and glory. Campbell convincingly goes from a jaded hedonist to someone who confronts his failings as a human being and even apologizes in the end to those who stood by his side.

A publicity still of Luana Anders from THE YOUNG RACERS (1963).

The other stand-out performance in The Young Racers is Luana Anders in the role of Steve’s faithful secretary. She takes what could be the stereotyped role of a woman waiting for her boss to notice and desire her and puts a refreshingly modern spin on it. In the course of the film, you expect her to remain a passive observer to the rivalry between between Steve and Machin but she surprises them both with her directness and independence.

Dennis Hopper and Luana Anders star in the atmospheric mystery thriller NIGHT TIDE (1961), directed by Curtis Harrington.

Like Campbell, Anders is often underrated as an actor but she has been memorable in a wide range of roles in other American International Pictures such as Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (1961) opposite Dennis Hopper, Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and, as the scheming villainess of Dementia 13. She went on to appear with her friend Jack Nicholson in a number of films including The Trip (1967), Easy Rider (1969), The Last Detail (1973), The Missouri Breaks (1976), Goin’ South (1978) and The Two Jakes (1990). Unfortunately, she died from breast cancer at the age of 58 in 1996.

Race car driver Steve Children (Mark Damon) is greeted by a fan in THE YOUNG RACERS (1963).

As for the other male lead in The Young Racers, Mark Damon is attractive and moderately engaging as Joe’s rival but he has been much better in other films. He started playing bit parts in TV shows and movies in the mid-fifties before specializing in juvenile delinquents and bad boys in movies like Young and Dangerous (1957), Life Begins at 17 (1958) and The Party Crashers (1958). He also played romantic leads in Corman’s House of Usher (1960) and Edward L. Cahn’s 1962 low-budget retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Damon ended up abandoning Hollywood in the early sixties and relocated to Italy where he appeared in various genre films with an emphasis on spaghetti westerns and gothic horror thrillers. He makes a particularly memorable villain in Carlo Lizzani’s psychedelic western Requiescant aka Kill or Pray (1967) and Byleth: The Demon of Incest (1972) and The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973) are among his more unconventional horror roles. Surprisingly enough, Damon is better known today as a producer and has been the money man behind such films as Robert Aldrich’s The Choirboys (1977), The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986), the live-action adventure The Jungle Book (1994), Monster (2003) with Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wuornos, and Rob Reiner’s And So It Goes (2014).

Some additional trivia on the film: R. Wright Campbell, who is cast as Joe’s unhappy, put-upon brother and personal assistant in The Young Racers only acted in a few films but preferred screenwriting and penned several Roger Corman films such as Machine Gun Kelly (1958), Teenage Caveman (1958), The Secret Invasion (1964) and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Campbell also received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay for the Lon Chaney biopic, Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), co-written with Ralph Wheelwright, Ivan Goff, and Ben Roberts.

Irish actor Patrick Magee (left) and William Campbell would soon co-star again in DEMENTIA 13 (1963) as soon as filming on THE YOUNG RACERS (1963) was completed.

The sinister looking Irish actor Patrick Magee also pops up in a small but pivotal role in The Young Racers as a malicious gossip who tries to poison the minds of everyone around him while exposing his own reasons for wanting to see Joe’s ultimate defeat. Also, look fast for cameos with Roger Corman and Francis Ford Coppola. The former appears at the beginning of the film as a reporter who greets Joe at an event and Coppola shows up at a party scene where his wife openly flirts with Joe. Famous Formula One racers Jim Clark and Bruce McLaren can also be glimpsed quickly in the movie.

Sesia (Marie Versini) confronts her drunken husband Joe (William Campbell) in a rare moment of intimacy for them in THE YOUNG RACERS (1963).

Certainly, The Young Racers is not as famous or popular as other Corman pictures from the same era such as the director’s screen adaptations of several Edgar Allan Poe stories such as Tomb of Ligeia (1964), which actually received critical acclaim in some quarters, or the visionary sci-fi classic, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963). After all, the racing drama was conceived as a low-budget effort produced by AIP for fast playoff on the drive-in circuit but it is so much better and emotionally engaging than other B-movies about the race car world of its era like Fireball 500 (1966), Track of Thunder (1967) or Fever Heat (1968). Still, most major film critics either ignored the film upon release or dismissed it as mediocre but there were some exceptions like Howard Thompson of The New York Times who wrote, “…as the film progresses, its superficial protagonists grow more complex and assume added dimensions, until they unexpectedly emerge as interesting people. The result, though not a picture that many filmgoers would take special pains to see, still provides an agreeable hour for those who do. It is enough to make a viewer wonder what Mr. Corman might be able to accomplish with a better project and adequate means.”

Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino also lists The Young Racers among his favorite car racing movies and if you see it and love it, you should also check out The Wild Racers (1968), another AIP release, produced by Corman and directed by Daniel Haller, which charts the rise of a devil-may-care race car driver (Fabian) competing in European trophy races.

The Young Racers is not currently available as a stand-alone release on any format but you might be able to still purchase the DVD collection from MGM video released in September 2007 entitled The Roger Corman Collection. The 6-disc box set includes Bloody Mama, A Bucket of Blood, The Trip, The Premature Burial, Gas-s-s, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, The Wild Angels and The Young Racers (the latter two titles are on the same disc but there are no bonus supplements).

Other links of interest:








Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s