James Dean, the actor and sports car racing newcomer with obvious driving talent, drove his last race, in a Porsche Speedster, at Santa Barbara’s old Municipal Airport road race course in adjacent Goleta, California, on May 29, 1955. Dean’s next race was to be that same year’s first weekend in October, this time in a brand new Porsche 550 Spyder, but he would die on the way to it when his 550 collided with a another car on a lone stretch of highway in central California. In an instant, a life ended and a legend was born.
John Edgar was at that May 1955 Santa Barbara race weekend with his 16mm Bell & Howell magazine-load movie camera, and when James sped past in his Speedster, film was rolling. That footage of Dean on track and in the paddock years later served as basis for an article I wrote with Michael T. Lynch for Road & Track magazine. Later still, my father’s rare scenes of Dean driving his last race was used, through my agreement with Warner Brothers and Screen Icons, in a 90-minute documentary titled “James Dean: Forever Young”. Narrated by Martin Sheen, it follows James from early life through his short-lived career of acting in television and motion pictures, and even shorter time as a promising race driver.
To read a PDF of the William Edgar/Michael T. Lynch Road & Track 3-page article, click on: James Dean’s Last Race
To read a PDF of a later 7-page article I wrote for the Porsche magazine, Excellence, click on: James Dean: Porsches and Posterity
[The backstory here is that many movie celebrities have taken to driving, and racing, sports cars. In my journalism I have worked with some of the better known … James Garner in “The Racing Scene”, Paul Newman with “Once Upon A Wheel”, Kirk Douglas narrating “The Day They Let the Lions Loose”, and Steve McQueen for an article in Vintage Motorsport magazine about his personal views on driving and racing. There’s a relationship to be seen between acting in front of cameras and steering race cars. In both cases, it’s an intensity that livens life and assures the doer that it can be done. Steve McQueen spoke of the process in my interview with him 44 years ago: “It’s a combination of trying to use a motorcar and yourself as one complete unit, so you’re really testing the umbilical cord between the machinery and the man.” And that’s the crux of it, really. – WE]