It was news I had been expecting for some time. Knowing that things weren’t well doesn’t make the finality of it all any easier.
The passing of James Garner at the age of 86 this past weekend marks another major loss to our sport’s fading passage of its original roots. He represented so many things to so many people in so many ways. But, he really belonged to us.
To the world, Jim Garner was one of those very special leading men from Hollywood that encapsulated all the good looks and talent God might bestow in a single human being. To a younger audience, it might be surprising to learn that his legend began not with his famous role as street savvy detective in The Rockford Files, but much earlier in some of the most memorable films of the 1960s. Do yourself a favor some weekend night and watch him work his special acting magic in Grand Prix, arguably auto racing’s greatest film. Or, better yet, revel in his performance next to fellow off-road racer Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, a testosterone festival of a movie if there ever was one.
Off-road racing has been blessed to have both Garner and McQueen – two absolute Hollywood A-list superstars – among our roster of famous personalities. Thanks primarily to the Mexican/Baja 1000s and the Mint 400 we have also seen the influx of other cross-over superstars like Paul Newman, Patrick Dempsey, Jesse James and more international professional driving talent than any other form of racing I can think of.
Fittingly, in 1978 was inducted into the freshman class of the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame and NORRA founder Ed Pearlman.
“He was kind of close with my father, they may have gone out a few times together,” recalls son and NORRA President Mike Pearlman. “Jim Garner was always happy, he never had a mad look on his face. The camera really loved him too.”
Garner’s famous smile and very American good looks in images taken by Hot Rod magazine photographers are an off-road racing treasure. He was often captured hanging out in the impound area of the old NORRA Baja races, with some of the best shots with blond and buxom Linda Vaughn – “Miss Hurst Golden Shifter” – at his side. But even in the heat of battle and covered with dirt the Garner persona shinned through unlike the mere mortals he was racing against. The haunting photograph of the exhausted actor taking a swig of water at a Baja pit stop at the 1968 Mexican 1000 is as iconic as any in motorsports.
From what I have learned from those that were there, it was really James Garner who stood out as one of us, an off-road racer at heart that loved nothing more than “racing this old Bronco from Ensenada to La Paz” as he explained looking directly into the camera in his 1970 documentary The Racing Scene. Where McQueen was more of a loner, Garner was the down-to-earth everyman with a more approachable attitude despite his international fame.
Closer to home, former SCORE International President Sal Fish met Garner initially via his association with Petersen Publishing founder Robert Petersen and associate Dick Day in the mid-1960s. Fish then reacquainted himself in Baja, and was once towed to a checkpoint by Garner’s chase crew when the EMPI Volkswagen sedan he was racing broke down in Laguna Chapala. In later years, SCORE’s head honcho would see Garner at the Paradise Cove near his Malibu home, which also served as the main backdrop for the famous beachside trailer set of the Rockford Files.
“I can tell you first hand that James Garner was an international superstar, but, he really was also just one of us,” remembers Fish. “He was gracious to everyone, and just a very nice, nice man.
Garner fielded sports cars at LeMans, Daytona and Sebring via his “American International Racers” team, but it was in the desert that Mr. Garner spent the majority of his racing career. Like McQueen and Newman, Garner also possessed an impressive amount of prowess behind the wheel.
His first off-road race was in an old Porsche-powered Meyers Manx at the 1968 Stardust 7-11 race in Las Vegas, a vehicle owned by Fleetwood Enterprises (think motorhomes) founder John Crean. While Garner and co-driver Scooter Patrick DNF’ed their maiden outing, by that year’s NORRA Mexican 1000 they had moved Bill Stroppe’s Ford Bronco team and found themselves teammates with non other than Parnelli Jones.
“I’ll miss Jim for sure and my family and I offer our condolences to his entire family and all his friends,” Parnelli Jones told RACER Magazine. “Jim was very special, for sure. The first time I got acquainted with Jim was in 1968 when he raced in the Baja 1000 in Mexico with Scooter Patrick. The Baja 1000 was a really big deal back then, big enough to be covered by ABC’s ‘Wide World of Sports.’ Jim was a hell of a driver, a competitor; most people don’t remember that and that he raced in a lot of different types of cars over the years. He truly was a ‘man’s man.’
Garner would later shift alliances to Vic Hickey, who had designed and constructed the two “Baja Boot” cars eventually acquired by McQueen. The ever-innovative Hickey would build several off-road- ready versions of Garner’s famous Oldsmobile 442s, along with the tube framed Oldsmobile Banshee recently restored by the John Swift family.
Eventually pressures of work took Garner away from the sport, and he never returned in any visible capacity.
It was always a personal career goal to meet Jim Garner. Sadly, and despite my best efforts, that opportunity never presented itself. Rumor has it he snuck into the Peterson Automotive Museum in 2000 for my original “1000 Miles to Glory” tribute, but I never saw him. I just wanted to thank him for all he had done for an industry forever grateful for his presence and influence.
In recent months the Baja Social Club film and our recently acquired Bruce Brown film archives from the 1968 Mexican 1000 offered us never-before-seen film views of Mr. Garner at that fateful race. I made on final attempt to contact the ailing off-roader in hopes of having him provide the voice-over for our project. My friend Jim Hancock, who was also working on a film project with Patrick Dempsey about racing actors at that time, shared that his failing health offered little to no hope.
Now the world at large has lost him forever.
However, he was a very special part of our collective story. James Garner was truly one of our own.