A Racer Remembers James Garner

James Garner, the last real gentleman
By Lori Lovely

People Magazine called him “the last real man.” I think he might just be the last real gentleman. Whether you remember James Garner for Maverick, The Great Escape, The Rockford Files, or something else entirely, you’ll hardly recall any scandals, any indecorous behavior. The man who earned two purple hearts in Korea and participated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington is a class act. James Garner is kind, laid-back, handsome, witty and humble.

He’s also a car and motor racing enthusiast who has a respectable amount of experience and talent. “I love to drive,” he confesses. After filming Grand Prix in 1966, director John Frankenheimer remarked that Garner had enough driving talent to go professional if he so desired. Garner did for a brief time, with part ownership of American International Racers in the 1960s, fielding cars at Le Mans, Daytona, Sebring and Baja.

Beginning with little more experience beyond driving hot rods in the 1940s and ‘50s, Garner pursued the role of Pete Aron in Grand Prix, still considered by racers to be the ultimate racing movie.

“It’s one of the few jobs I tried to get,” he reflects. “Steve McQueen was talking to Frankenheimer about it, but they didn’t get along. When I read about the film in the paper, I called my agent and asked her to get me a script. They wanted an American, and although I was a little big for the part, I got it.”
The 6-foot-3 Oklahoma-born actor went at the part “like I’d never driven before,” instructed by Bob Bondurant, who now runs the famed driving school. “I was his first student,” Garner recalls. He learned quickly and performed about 85-90 percent of his character’s driving for the film. “It was my first time running with competitive drivers,” he says. “It was great. Think about it: For eight months I drove on the best circuits with the best drivers in the best cars.”

His relationship with Bondurant continued. The two became partners in the AIR team. Due to contractual restrictions, Garner was only able to compete in about 15 off-road races, mostly in Baja and Arizona, but as a team owner, he got to test drive every race car they owned. “I really loved the dirt,” he says. “I never got to drive sprint cars; I would have loved that. Now that I’m older, I look back and think those guys are crazy, but back then, I would have loved it.”

Garner was always careful to bring his car home intact. “I was almost always able to drive back after the run,” he recalls. “I had only one mechanical failure. Too many guys tear up their cars. I always told Parnelli [Jones] you can only go as fast as you can see to stop. The terrain changes after 30-40 cars have pounded over it. Once he kept it together, he started winning.”

Garner fondly recalls his off-road career. “It was good fun,” he sums up. “The pre-run at Baja was as much fun as the race, but camping out with Parnelli, telling stories was the best part.”

Telling stories is something Garner does well, and he has a million of them – like driving his Lola T70 illegally on the streets for six months, or golfing with Parnelli and Lloyd Ruby, or his embarrassment when he found out his passengers on a demo ride around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway were Jacky Oliver and his wife. “I’ve done a lot of laps around that track,” he muses. “Hundreds of laps. I enjoy it. But when I realized it was Jacky in the car, I asked him why he was riding with me, and let him drive around on his own.”

The easy-going actor whose smile is as warm as his brown eyes put down many of those laps behind the wheel of a pace car during three Indianapolis 500s: 1975, 1977, and 1985. “Driving the pace car is easy and fun,” he says casually. “It wasn’t all that difficult. But I’d head for the pits as soon as possible because there were a lot of eager guys behind me!”

Acknowledging the pressure, he says his biggest fear was making a mistake. “You’ve got 33 drivers with a lot of horsepower behind you, and a responsibility to get off the track.” But he also felt a responsibility to the teams and support personnel. “Eldon Palmer [a local Indianapolis Dodge dealer who drove the pace in 1971] made a mistake and hit the photographer’s stand. I wanted to avoid that. I never drove fast down the pits; there are too many people there.”

For all his racing connections, the charismatic actor says he is not a car collector. “I’d have $6 to $7 million dollars’ worth of cars if I collected them!” he exclaims in that familiar baritone. “I don’t want to start a garage.” But, as he reflects on all the cars he’s driven – Ferraris, Lolas, Corevettes – there is no question what is his favorite: the Mini Cooper. Years after regretting the sale of two 1967 Minis, Garner is waiting on delivery of a new one. The “S”? I ask. “Of course,” he responds, ever the car guy.

Meanwhile, he drives an Olds Bravada and a 1985 BMW 635 with 30,000 miles on it. And continues to charm the heck out of me by calling me “sweetheart.”

Special contribution reprinted with the author’s permission.