We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With 27 days to go, Jeff Vrabel continues exploring the many tie-ins between the Indy 500 and pop culture.
More Vrabel: Million-dollar mistake | Sullivan on “Miami Vice” | SNL’s “Superfans” | Harroun and the rearview mirror | “500” in Hollywood’s glory days | A.J. Foyt has a secret | Late-night TV hosts at Indy | The “500” in reality TV shows | In old TV | In silent movie | In “Cars” | In “Turbo” | The Beatles at IMS | Pace Car drivers | Snake Pit rebirth | The ultimate “500” playlist | David Letterman, pit reporter | Indy 500 on Atari 2600 | On “Jeopardy!” | More 100 days blogs
The 500 — and more specifically its Pace Car — has been home to dozens of celebrities, but let us take a moment to recognize James Garner, a man devoted enough to Indy that he attended the race more than 20 times and drove the Pace Car in 1975, 1977, 1985 and 1995.
Garner, who died in 2014, might have been best known for his role as Jim Rockford on “The Rockford Files,” the effortlessly iconic ‘70s private eye who spent his time hunting down the criminal element (while looking awesome) in a Pontiac Firebird. (He also starred as Bret Maverick in the 1960s show “Maverick,” but he spent less time in cars on that show.)
But for racing fans, Garner was one of Hollywood’s preeminent race ambassadors, and his racing and acting work were often inseparable. The 1966 Formula One film “Grand Prix,” directed by John Frankenheimer (also an amateur racer) and starring Garner (who reportedly won the role after Steve McQueen backed out), is still regarded as one of the finest racing movies of all time, one that garnered (get it) multiple Oscars. Garner (the actor, not the verb) handled most of the driving in the movie himself, and his interest in racing was a direct result.
In fact, shortly after the film he established the race team “American International Racing,” which fielded cars at the Le Mans and Daytona endurance races, and prepped cars for successful runs in the Baja 500. Garner also worked on the 1970 racing documentary “The Racing Scene,” in which he also starred. And for decades after, he’d go on to cultivate joint careers in acting and racing. “(Garner) might have really gone places in motorsports if his acting career hadn’t kept getting in the way,” wrote Autoweek upon his death. Ron Howard, who directed the F1 film “Rush,” tweeted that “the people around F1 said he had the talent to be a pro driver.”
(Odd bonus: According to a slightly old report from Jalopnik, Garner was also at some point involved with a secret Indy Car, one that has four seats and is pretty much unlike anything you’ve ever seen. This is the Internet, so take with a grain of salt. But man, the pictures are something.)