In 1967, Garner’s team, American International Racers (AIR). competed in long-distance sports car racing, such as Le Mans (France), Daytona, and Sebring (Florida), with mixed success, but in keeping with the long-distance theme AIR prepped 10 factory Ramblers for the 1969 Baja 1000. Seven out of the 10 finished and placed in what was then considered the most important category, Class 1, production sedans.
After that, Garner drove the Oldsmobile Banshee and Olds 442 in many 1000’s and Baja 500s with Jack Mendenhall. He then tried his hand at driving Stroppe-prepped Ford pickups with Slick Gardner.
Racing between studio duties was a challenge. Maverick was his first series and a big hit, and established him as a star. The New York Times described him as “someone who could slide seamlessly between television and the movies.” He then went on to do many movies, such as Dartby’s Rangers and The Great Escape, to mention but a few. He received an Academy Award nomination in 1985 for Murphy’s Romance with Sally Field.
But what made Garner a really big star, as far as race fans are concerned, was his starring role as Formula One driver Pete Aron in Grand Prix released in 1966. Garner did all of his own driving in the movie, and his supporting cast was a roster of Formula One racing drivers at the time—Dan Gurney, Richie Ginter, Chris Amon, Graham Hill, and camera car driver Bob Bondurant (who continues to oversee his racing school in Arizona),
“When starring in Grand Prix,” said Rush’s director Ron Howard, “the people around F1 said he (Garner) had the talent to be a pro driver.”
Garner continued to use his driving skills as Jim Rockford in the Rockford Files. He played an ex-convict turned private investigator, who had many run-ins with both underworld characters and the Los Angeles Police Department. His stunt work while driving his Pontiac Firebird was a feature in the series, as Rockford was usually evading someone who wanted to do him great bodily harm.
Garner was not only a make-believe hero on the screen. During WWII, he served in the Merchant Marines, and then joined the Army, and served with the 5th Regimental Combat team, where he was awarded two Purple Hearts for being wounded in Korea. While in the Army, he suffered a knee injury which bothered him constantly and led to both knees being replaced.
In 1978, Garner was invited by SCORE and promoter Mickey Thompson to participate in an Off-Road Jeep Challenge at Riverside Raceway, run during the regular race weekend. Many film and sports celebrities were there; the feature race was on Sunday, the last race of the day, after all other racing had concluded.
The crowds were glued to their seats as the 12-lap race began, and comedian and veteran race driver Dick Smothers took an early lead after Garner had become mixed up in traffic. But it wasn’t very long before Garner started gaining on Smothers, lap by lap. In the end Smothers with his codriver Gene Hightower won the race, with Garner and codriver Don Adams in Second. “One more lap and you woulda had me,” Smothers told Garner in the winner’s circle.
After the race, many fans said it was the closest and best race of any kind they had seen.
Jim, we enjoyed many of your performances, both on and off the track.
Postscript: In July, Garner died of a massive heart attack at his home in Los Angeles. At the age of 86. His last film was in 2004, The Notebook.
Vaya con Dios
from the staff of Dirt Sports