…but James Garner could also have cut it as a racer
Steve McQueen and Paul Newman tend to be talked up as being useful racers, but Garner was arguably as good… so long as he was competing off-road. After making Grand Prix, he formed his own race team – American International Racing – which fielded a variety of cars in Formula A (F5000) and sports cars in 1968-69. The undoubted highlight of its brief programme was second place overall in the ’69 Daytona 24 Hours for the team’s Lola T70, which was driven by Ed Leslie and Lothar Motschenbacher. Garner’s Cherokee Productions went on to release a 90-minute film that documented his ’69 campaign. The Racing Scene also featured footage of him competing in the Baja 1000 in a Bill Stroppe Ford Bronco.
Garner had been banned from circuit racing by studio chiefs and his insurer, but the clause in his contract said nothing about him competing off-piste. He recalled in The Garner Files: “For some reason, they did allow me to drive in the Baja 1000. I’m not sure why they made that exception. Maybe they thought it was a rally because there were checkpoints. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I fell through that crack.” He competed in the 1000-mile event six times from 1968, and soon began running his own AMC/Ramblers and ever more elaborate tubular-framed Oldsmobiles. These culminated with the Banshee, which featured an engine where the passenger seat would normally be. He claimed one class win, and also ran strongly in other classic off-road events including the Stardust 7-11 Grand Prix and the Mint 400 in Nevada.
Legendary GM engineer Vic Hickey, who built Garner’s Oldsmobiles and also Steve McQueen’s Baja Boot buggy, told Autoweek in 1996: “While he wasn’t the most fearless driver, [Garner] had the best retention of any man who drove for me. On a pre-run, if he hit a bump, he’d come back five days later and tell you where it was within 10 feet.”
Erik Carlsson told Motor Sport in 2012: “I did the ’69 Baja race with Torsten Aman who was an excellent co-driver. We led the class in our little V4 but the universal joints broke after only a few stages. We got them fixed and got back into the lead but then they broke again. We ended up third. In second place was James Garner. Steve McQueen was also there, although he didn’t finish. He was interested in my Saab and later on he crashed it into a scrapyard, knocking over a mountain of tin cans. He got out and just laughed. He was a bit crazy, I think. Garner was a good, sensible driver, though. Later on he drove me to my hotel in his race car. He was a really nice guy.”
Garner was inducted into the Off-Road Hall of Fame in 1978.