James Garner, a lifelong racing enthusiast who might have really gone places in motorsports if his acting career hadn’t kept getting in the way, died in Los Angeles July 19 at age 86. The cause of death is not known, but Garner had suffered a stroke in 2008 and had quintuple bypass surgery in 1988.
Garner is best-known to the public for two popular roles: Jim Rockford, the wise-cracking private eye who often used his gold Pontiac Firebird to nab (or escape from) bad guys; and as Bret Maverick in the early-'60s TV western. But he will always be best-known to race fans as the talented American driver Pete Aron taking on the Europeans in the movie "Grand Prix." In that John Frankenheimer hit, one of the top-10 highest-grossing movies of 1966, Garner got to work with the best F1 drivers of the day, including Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Fangio, Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, Dan Gurney, Ritchie Ginther and Bruce McLaren.
"Grand Prix" has been hailed by many as the best portrayal of real racing ever filmed, along with Steve McQueen’s "Le Mans." Indeed, McQueen was originally slotted to star in "Grand Prix," but an early disagreement with producers led to his pulling out and Garner getting the role. Unlike some of his co-stars who couldn’t drive at all, Garner did much of his own driving in the movie -- and fell in love with racing as a result. Subsequently, some of the real drivers in the film, including Graham Hill, reportedly told him he could have done well as real driver.
A friendship with "Grand Prix" cast members Bob Bondurant and Dick Guldstrand lead to the creation of Garner’s race team “American International Racing,” after the movie wrapped. AIR fielded L88 Corvettes and Lola T70s at Daytona and Sebring, with leading sports car drivers of the day Scooter Patrick, Davey Jordan, Lothar Mothschenbacher and Guldstrand. The team also fielded a John Surtees Formula A/F5000 car in late 1969 that was featured in the documentary "The Racing Scene" starring James Garner as himself.
Garner also famously drove a wild Vic Hickey-built Olds 442 4x4 in the NORRA Baja 1000 in 1969. That car was aptly dubbed “The Grabber.” Garner’s co-driver in that epic was Scooter Patrick.
Garner stayed interested in racing his whole life, driving the pace car at the Indy 500 three times, in 1975, ’77 and ’85. He also appeared in TV commercials for Mazda and Chevrolet.
His marriage to Lois Fleishman Clarke in 1956 was one of Hollywood’s longest unions.