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James Garner – April 7, 1928 – July 19, 2014

Bob Bondurant and James Garner discuss racing on the set of Grand Prix.

As the world remembers one of America’s acting legends, Bob Bondurant reflects back on his friendship and many memories of James Garner.

James Garner and I met at Riverside Raceway in 1965 at the request of Carroll Shelby and John Frankenheimer, the director of the movie Grand Prix. Frankenheimer brought half a dozen Hollywood leading men to the track for me to take for hot laps in the 289 Cobra. Ken Miles and I were testing the GT40 and did not think much of Hollywood producers wanting to make another embarrassing race movie. Frankenheimer told me that all he wanted was for me to tell him which guy had what it takes to be a race car driver for his new race movie. I looked at Shelby with a look that said “You have to be kidding me,” but Shelby sent me out on the track with each poor sucker who left brown stains in their pants after I gave them each a few hot laps reaching top speeds of 150 MPH. These guys were terrified, motion sick, and white knuckled from start to end. The last guy to jump in was James Garner. I was really dialed in by now, enjoying terrorizing these Hollywood boys and burning the hot laps off like I was qualifying for a race! James Garner seemed excited for his turn and off we went. There was no windscreen on the passenger’s side. This guy was laughing and enjoying it so much that the wind was blowing open his cheeks at 150 and he was having a complete blast like a kid on a roller coaster ride. I pulled into pit lane and looked at Frankenheimer and said “this is your man,” and so it was to be.

Shelby assigned me to be Garner’s personal instructor in a Mustang GT350, a Formula Ford, and a real Formula One for the next week at Willow Springs Race Track. Next we flew to Europe. Frankenheimer leaned over as we were landing at Heathrow Airport and said, “Oh by the way Bob, you are also going to train the other three actors to drive in the movie for me.” That was great but I was also driving in my first full F1 season as he was filming the movie. I learned later that this was his point. He wanted the real racing to be folded into his movie. I was going to be a very busy man.

In Europe filming Grand PrixFrankenheimer hired me to be the technical advisor, drive the camera cars with Phil Hill, dress up as the drivers, stunt drive, and direct race scenes with the cameraman, John Stevens. As a bonus, I actually had one line in the movie speaking to James Garner, where I earned my SAG card! Much to my shock, I learned that two of the other actors did not even have drivers licenses – what a challenge this would be. Frankenheimer arranged for us to use Jim Russell’s School and his Formula Fords for a week. I ran with them in training but clearly James Garner was light years ahead of the other actors. During filming he told me, “I am so much better than these other guys because of you and your training, Bob. I just want to say thank you, it really means a lot to me.”

Jim and I became quick friends and he listened to everything I said. He told me over dinner one night that he humbly appreciated that I was a proven World Champion Driver and that gave him tremendous confidence to have no fear while learning car control and how to drive so fast. I felt his respect for me and my racing accomplishments. Over the years I discovered that some of my best students were Hollywood actors like Garner, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, and Tom Cruise. Because they were actors, they listened to instruction better than most students. Actors have a deep respect for anyone who has made it.

Yves Montand was also a pretty quick learner and I was actually pleased with his progress too. In the beginning of the movie we used Jim Russell’s Formula Fords and modified them to look like Formula 1 cars. About half way through the movie the FIA changed the rules on the Formula 1 cars and went from a 1.5 litre to a 3.0 litre. Frankenheimer had bought the 1.5 litre F1 cars which changed the whole game when we had to put the actors in the real Formula 1 cars. Antonio Sabato was now really a nervous wreck! Although Jim Garner and Yves Montand were both quick, I was so impressed with Jim’s ability to just listen to my instruction and then go do it. He was the best and did a fantastic job.

Here’s a funny story about Jim Garner. He was, without a doubt, a complete and total gentleman. He flew his wife and 8 year old daughter, Gigi, over during the filming. He was just a fantastic family man for all the 49 years that we were friends. Ford had sent over a gold and black Hurst Mustang for Garner to drive in all the countries as we filmed, but he thought it was way too flashy for him. It definitely brought more excitement than a Ferrari when it was in Europe, so he gave it to me to drive. I was a bachelor and I thoroughly enjoyed that car…a lot!

The filming came to an end, my Formula 1 season was over and it was a wrap. The movie was a huge success and I had set my sights on the Can-Am series. We heard in Europe the Can-Am cars were faster than the Formula 1 cars. After a chat, it was decided I was going to race Can-Am with my racing buddy and now co-driver Peter Revson, the heir to the Revlon fortune. Jim was thrilled I was back racing in the U.S.

In 1967 my old racing buddy Dick Guldstrand and I started a race team called AIR (American International Racing). I brought on Goodyear and invited Jim Garner to join us. He jumped at the chance! Jim was now hooked on racing and, of course, with mine and Dick’s Corvette racing success, our first two cars were Corvettes. My Can-Am accident at Watkins Glen was a near-fatal accident, where I was told I would never walk again, killed my chances of racing with the team. I went to the track to attempt to test the Corvettes at Willow Springs. Even after my casts were off, it was just too painful to press on the pedals required for racing. Instead, I remembered how good it felt in my heart to train Jim and the other actors for the movie Grand Prix, so I started Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving on February 14th, 1968. Jim Garner was such a true friend that he attended my first day of the Grand Opening to support me – that is a true friend. Coincidentally, Paul Newman and Robert Wagner were my 3rd and 4th students, sent by the studio for the movie Winning. It seemed that I was now the ‘go to’ guy for training the movie stars how to race. I haven’t heard from Patrick Dempsey yet, I have a little experience he might find helpful!

Bob, Mr K. and Jim at the Opening of Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving.

One day Jim and I both decided it would be crazy fun to race in the off-road Baja 500 and the 1,000. I won my class and clearly remember seeing Jim’s handsome face, all lit up, covered in dirt with his great big white smile. He was a free man, with Hollywood miles and miles away from his mind.

Over the next 46 years, Jim and I would check in on each other. We would see each other at lots of different races, Indy races, he loved all the racing world. He was truly a real part of it, he earned it! As we got older, we would have our talks about how my school was doing; he loved the publicity the school created. He was proud for me, my return to racing, his growing daughter Gigi, and how she was his sidekick everywhere he went. We rarely ever talked about his movies. Our friendship was very similar to my close friendship with Paul Newman, neither guy ever once worried about me being anymore than their teacher, mentor, confidant, their real guy friend. We were all very close racing brothers.

It was so difficult for me to lose Paul. We spoke as best we could up until his final days, and I still miss him. Last fall, my wife Pat and I visited Jim in his home in California. He was very articulate, funny, charming and his memory was flawless, better than mine! We spoke at Christmas on the phone. My next call from his daughter Gigi in January was her just letting me know to be prepared as her father was slipping. I thought it would be easier than losing Paul. It was not.

Since learning of Jim’s passing, my mind has been a running movie of our 49 years as friends. I am grateful to say he was my true friend, a gentleman, a class act family man and a fantastic race car driver. My heart is heavy today for you Jim. Go find Paul for me and tell him some good Bondurant stories, Ha!

Goodbye Jim, I love you buddy,

Bob Bondurant

Bob and James in James' Special race car.

LOCATION

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20000 S. Maricopa Road, Gate #3
Chandler, AZ 85226

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Phoenix, AZ 85076

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