Over the weekend, sadly, 86 year old screen legend James Garner was found dead of natural causes at his Los Angeles home. For most people, Garner will be remembered for his career as a leading man, especially for his work on the hit TV shows Maverick and The Rockford Files.
But for die hard auto enthusiasts, Garner will be remembered in a completely different vain: as an off road legend.
Garner initially became interested in racing after his starring role in the 1966 film, Grand Prix. In fact, after the film, Garner became so infatuated with racing that he went out and became part owner of the American International Racers team. This team would go on to race and contend at places like Le Mans, Daytona, and the Sebring International Raceway.
Through his involvement with the team, Garner became one of the primary faces of a new and budding off-road movement, even elevating the sport’s exposure to the national stage.
The Off-Road Hall of Fame says, “As a famous actor James Garner brought much needed publicity to off-road racing in the early years of sports development when it needed the attention the most… His presence at the 1968 NORRA Mexican 1000 helped to generate publicity for the event and coverage on ABC’s show, The Wide World of Sports.”
Not only was Garner a team owner, though, he also got behind the wheel.
Actually, much of the early part of Garner’s racing career is chronicled in the classic 1969 documentary, The Racing Scene. In the film, director Andy Sidaris follows Garner’s racing team as they make stops in Mexico, England, Florida, and Canada. It’s a must watch for any racing fanatic or classic film lover.
Of course, this film and entertainment career may seem like a guy trying to cash in, but don’t let the dog and pony show fool you. Garner was the real deal behind the wheel, winning and placing in the top five of a number of prestigious races.
Hall of Famer Vic Hickey says of Garner, “The thing about Garner was that, while he wasn’t the world’s most fearless driver, he had the best retention of any man that ever drove for me. On a pre-run, if he hit a bump, he would come back five days later and tell you where it was within ten feet.”
By 1978, Garner had become so respected and ingrained in the off-road racing world that he was even inducted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame. This, of course, was not only for his work behind the wheel, but for his work to expand and popularize the sport.
Possibly, without Garner, a lot of us off road junkies may not have even gotten involved with the sport that we love.
Check out and re-live some of Garner’s most famous and important moments below. Rest in Peace big guy…