Race Weekend Central

The Passing of an Era

The death of James Garner this past weekend marked a loss of another kind: the passing of the era when Hollywood celebrities openly hobnobbed with NASCAR Nation. Today’s media-driven celebrities tend to show up on race day with a press agent and camera crew in tow, but Garner was of a more sincere period when pit row was all about the racing action, not merely getting a reaction.

And James Garner was not the only movie star to develop a close relationship with automobile racing. Stories about the late James Dean and Steve McQueen are part of motorsport folklore, and most any racing fan of a certain age can tell you about the connection between auto racing and the late Paul Newman. Even George Lucas of “Star Wars” fame tried his hand at professional racing (until an accident forced him to rethink his career choice).

James Garner was part of this generation, and his passing last Saturday evening marked the turning of yet another important page in the chronicle of motorsports.

Garner’s interest in automobile racing was supposedly fueled (pardon the pun) by his role in John Frankenheimer’s 1966 cinematic epic “Grand Prix”. The movie, regarded by many critics as perhaps the greatest racing film ever made, took its audience on a no-holds-barred journey into the exotic and so-often romanticized world of big time Formula One competition (even though smaller Formula Three cars were used during filming, but oh, well), with Garner appearing as Pete Aron, an American driver trying to rebuild his career after a serious accident at Monaco that critically injured his teammate.

Despite the movie’s rather conventional plot structure (the familiar “driver-tries-to-resurrect-promising-career-after-wreck-that-causes-him-personal-emotional-trauma”), “Grand Prix” allowed James Garner to race (and win) against established professional open-wheel drivers. Such experiences connected him to the magic of motorsports for the rest of his life. Not only did James Garner own a race team – American International Racers – for two years at the end of the 1960’s, but he also drove pace cars at the Indianapolis 500 on three occasions (1975, 1977, and 1985).

Garner’s connection to stock car racing, however, was a bit of a surprise to me. While doing research on NASCAR for my doctoral dissertation many, many years ago, I stumbled across a photograph of the actor standing alongside the legendary (or infamous, however you want to see it) Curtis Turner. The two men were in the company of women in what appeared to be either someone’s home or hotel room, and everyone appeared to be having a good time. Given Turner’s reputation for mixing his business with pleasure, such a party candid did not seem very unusual. What seemed unusual, at first glance, was the presence of James Garner at such a NASCAR-centric affair.

Given the clothing and hairstyles captured by the photograph, the picture appeared to be from the early-to-mid 1960’s. This was the era when major motorsports were catching the attention of Hollywood directors. While John Frankenheimer was in the process of doing “Grand Prix”, the famous Howard Hawks was making “Red Line 7000” with James Caan starring as Mike Marsh, a Fred Lorenzen-type driver (going so far as to even having Caan’s character drive a white-and-blue No. 28 Holman-Moody Ford Galaxie).

As such, James Caan has continued to enjoy something akin to a relationship with NASCAR Nation over the years. He served as Grand Marshal for the Daytona 500 back in 2006, with much of his connection to racing tied to his performance in Hawks’ 1965 film.

Not to say that such a connection does a lot to tie NASCAR to Hollywood. Other actors to serve as Daytona 500 Grand Marshals were Nicholas Cage (in 2007) and James Franco (in 2013). At least there was no sign of Britney Spears with her star-spangled jumpsuit, Elvis-inspired sunglasses, and security entourage when she graced pit road with her presence about a decade ago….

But this, unfortunately, is the way that Hollywood currently sees NASCAR, if not all of motorsports. Going to a speedway circa 2014 means going to promote a new film or television show or album. Being seen on race day now means being seen as the star of something larger than the 43 cars lined up along pit road; now it means having some product to sell, but maybe – given NASCAR’s reputation for moving products – that is to be expected. Such consumerist behavior far predates the reign of Brian France and all of his show business connections.

Maybe it harkens back to a time before “Country” co-opted urban cool.

During the early-to-mid 1980’s, as NASCAR was morphing into NASCAR Nation, Willie Nelson appeared in print advertisements with Richard Childress and Dale Earnhardt. The ads honored the rugged spirit of American individualism and the ties between NASCAR racing and Wrangler Jeans. Sure, Nelson was making albums and packing venues, but he clearly identified with the growing audience shared by both country music and stock car racing. The connection to authentic originals like Childress and Earnhardt tied neatly into the fact that Wrangler was across the fenders of RCR’s No. 3 Chevrolets. It was a pretty sincere connection to celebrate.

Today, anyone media monster with mass entertainment to sell tries hitching their wagon to the PR horsepower of NASCAR Nation. Back in the days when a movie star like James Garner showed up at a NASCAR event, it was primarily to bask in the glamour of larger-than-life “celebrities” like Curtis Turner or Fred Lorenzen. This was also the “old school” era when drivers were known to race while nursing hangovers and carry insulated jugs full of spiked beverages alongside their roll bars. It was that pre-corporate period in NASCAR when the end of yet another race signaled the start of yet another party.

Like the passing of those rough-and-tumble, more hardy-and-heartfelt days, the passing of James Garner marks yet another transition in the history of NASCAR and motorsports in general. Big fun has become big money, and there are plenty of fair-weather “racing fans” lined up to hawk their latest product at the next stop on the circuit.

That is what, to me, makes James Garner’s death last Saturday even more tragic. Not only did the world lose a charming and talented actor, but motorsports lost yet another dedicated, albeit famous, fan.

His enthusiasm for the sport will be missed….

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