There’s no doubt that driving is a dangerous profession and not everyone is predisposed to be any good at it. Take Grand Prix for example, of the main cast, most of the actors couldn’t even drive, let alone be any good at it. Bedford couldn’t drive at all, Sabàto was very slow and nervous, Montand himself scared very easily early in filming and was often towed rather than driving the car, but James Garner was very competent and even took up racing and entering cars as a direct result of his involvement in the film.
James Garner found that he liked racing and was pretty good at it over the course of the film. Because of that he did all his own driving. During breaks in filming, the professional drivers in the film would race each other, Garner would take part. There were several mini races in which Garner either tied or bettered the professional drivers hired for the filming. Because of this, Garner spent the next ten or twenty years with a hobby of racing on the side between film shoots.
Garner was a part of two documentaries for racing over the years, The Racing Scene (1969) and Once Upon a Wheel (1971), but raced frequently in the desert racing circuit. Baja legend Vic Hickey remembers, “I had known Jim Garner for years. He was a friend of Bob Bondurant, and Bob and I were friends. The thing about Garner was that, while he wasn’t the world’s most fearless driver, he had the best retention of any man who drove for me. On a prerun, if he hit a bump, he’d come back five days later and tell you where it was within 10 feet.”
Garner only won one race in the Banshee he drove. That was the Riverside Grand Prix, run along a river bed near Riverside, Calif. But he usually ran near the front of the pack, and often placed high in the final standings. Oddly, his only competition accident came in the race he won. According to Hickey, Garner momentarily took his eyes off the course near the finish line at Riverside to look at the crowd, and flipped the Banshee into the river. Garner crawled out and threw his helmet in the mud in disgust. Yet he was so far ahead that he was eventually declared the winner. The actor had one other wreck in the Banshee a big one, in an early shakedown, when the car was going at least two-thirds of its 144-mph top speed. “He went into this corner at about a hundred miles an hour, lost it in the sand and flipped the car about five times,” Hickey says. “I was relieved to learn it was strong enough to protect Garner from injuries. The last thing I wanted to do was buy a movie star.”
Another cool note is that James Garner got to drive the Pace Car 3 times at the Indianapolis 500 race in 1975, 1977, and 1985. Grand Prix was directed by John Frankenheimer for Cherokee Productions.
Things to look up (click on item to go to IMDB page ):
History of film companies as defined by James Garner’s Website: CHEROKEE PRODUCTIONS was first incorporated by Motion Picture Icon and Television legend, James Garner in 1965 and has continued to be a recognized domestic and international brand to this day.
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