In 1968 I attended Daytona Beach Junior College on the GI Bill. Due to the proximity of the Daytona Speedway I became interested in attending the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) events held there.
Well, one thing led to another and I joined SCCA and began volunteering to help staff events from Regionals to Nationals and eventually professional events like the 24-Hours of Daytona and the 12-Hours of Sebring.
In January of 1969 I was working the 24-Hour race at Daytona and, when not on duty, spent time in the pits taking pictures of the fabulous cars and legendary drivers.
Like the 1970 Sebring race with Steve McQueen, the 1969 event at Daytona had a movie and television star in attendance in the form of actor and team owner James Garner.
For those of you out there who are too young to remember James Garner is best known for such TV shows as Maverick and Rockford Files. He also starred in movies like The Great Escape where he co-starred with good friend Steve McQueen.
In 1966 he made the movie Grand Prix where he loosely played the role of American Grand Prix Champion Phil Hill. The movie was made in a new process called Cinerama which, when shown in theaters, used three projectors simultaneously projecting onto three screens that were curved to take up your peripheral vision.
When I first saw this movie in the late 1960’s I literally got motion sickness during some of the racing action.
James Garner arrived at the Daytona Speedway with his American International Racers (AIR) team of two Lola T70’s. These were the Mark III versions with 5000 cc Traco Chevrolet engines.
Unlike Steve McQueen, who drove a Porsche at Sebring in 1970, Garner was not driving in this event but just acting as team owner. Driving duties were assigned to Ed Leslie, Lothar Motschenbacher, Scooter Patrick and Dave Jordan.
When I said that Garner was “acting” as team owner I should also include the fact that at this race he also had a film crew there filming a documentary of racing that would be later called The Racing Scene.
In the filming at Daytona Mr. Garner was just playing himself. Not as an actor but team owner. The Daytona 24 segment of the film was to be an honest look at big time professional sports car racing with his AIR team of cars and drivers as the focal point. Garner’s goal was to make a documentary film that would break the stereotypical mold that had developed in Hollywood concerning racing movies.
During the few days leading up to the start of the 24-Hour race I had a chance to observe Mr. Garner and how he interacted with his team members as well as the general public. To both groups he couldn’t be nicer. Not the image one might assume when dealing with Hollywood celebrities.
Mr. Garner was always very accommodating to folks who wanted to take his picture, get an autograph, pose with him or just talk.
One might assume that since he had a film crew there making a documentary in which he figured prominently that he would be on his best behavior lest something untoward be caught on camera.
To correct that assumption let me tell you of something that happened to a friend of mine who had a car entered in the race.
My friend had a Triumph GT6 entered in the race and he and his crew were on an extremely limited budget for the event. They didn’t even have enough money for hotel rooms so they planned to camp out in the paddock at the Speedway sleeping in and around their vehicles.
Daytona in late January and February can get quite cold and damp at night. On one particular night my friend was in his sleeping bag which was on an aluminum lounge chair next to his vehicle.
During the night a cold, damp fog rolled in off the Atlantic Ocean and by early morning my friend was covered in dew and he was cold to the bone.
Mr. Garner was an early riser and left his trailer as the sun was coming up drinking a hot cup of coffee to keep warm. He was on his way to the garage area when he noticed this fellow in the lawn chair who was just beginning to wake up.
Garner went back his trailer and got another cup of coffee and gave it to my friend who by now was awake and flabbergasted that this celebrity was bringing him a much needed cup of hot coffee.
Both of Mr. Garner’s AIR Lolas finished the race. The #8 car of Ed Leslie and Lothar Motschenbacher finished second behind the Roger Penske Lola T70 of Mark Donohue and Chuck Parsons and Garner’s #9 Lola driven by Scooter Patrick and Dave Jordan finished seventh. It was a remarkable first performance for the team.
Garner’s team also raced at Sebring that year, Lime Rock and the circuit at Canada’s St. Jovite. At the end of 1969 Garner disbanded American International Racers. His movie, The Racing Scene, was released in late 1970 and while not a top box office earner is considered one of the best racing films ever made.
From 1967 to 1969 Garner’s AIR cars raced in a number of events both in this country and Europe. However, the racing community best remembers Jim Garner for using his celebrity to help promote off-road racing in the early years of that sport.