It is with heavy hearts that we report that beloved actor and automotive racing enthusiast James Garner has died. Garner, who starred in the televisions series the Rockford Files and Maverick, was a screen legend who appeared in countless films throughout his long career. Although he is perhaps not as associated with automotive racing as actor Steve McQueen was, Garner was nevertheless a very active supporter and participant in auto racing.
Many may remember Garner appearing as the celebrity pace car driver for the Indianapolis 500, which he did no less than three times. I personally recall his status as the pace driver in the 1985 Indy 500 in a 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais. That was his last appearance as a pace car driver, but he’d been there twice before, always in a General Motors product, once in 1975 in a Buick Century Custom V-8 and then in 1977 in an Olds Delta 88.
Garner made a film about auto racing, the documentary The Racing Scene, which released in 1970. This film was based on Garner’s ownership of the American International Racers team, which at that time was competing in endurance races such as Le Mans and Daytona. Garner himself piloted grand prix racers on more than one occasion.
The actor was also well-known for his company’s role in the Baja 500 as a contractor with American Motors Corp (AMC). Garner’s team modified and raced ten 1969 SC/Ramblers after a successful run in Garner’s own 1970 Oldsmobile 442, modified for baja racing and called the Goodyear Grabber, convinced AMC to sign with AIR. Of the ten cars made for the Baja 500, an almost unprecedented seven of them finished the race. That was a testament to both the build quality of the cars and the expertise of the drivers in them.
James Garner will definitely be missed, but for many of us, his acting was secondary to his auto racing fanaticism and promotion.