James Garner’s “The Racing Scene” is a 90-minute theatrical documentary produced in wide-screen 35mm Techniscope for movie theaters. Shot in 1969, it was released in 1970-71. The banner photo above is from a frame in the film. Starring Garner (as himself), it was directed by Emmy-winning ABC Sports director Andy Sidaris and written by William Edgar.
In today’s demographically more savvy market “The Racing Scene” would have gone to DVD and sold widely, but film marketing 42 years ago was far less inventive and technologically advanced than we know now. Consequently, few motorsport enthusiasts have seen this excellent film chronicle of James Garner’s racing team efforts back in 1969 when he fielded cars at Daytona, Sebring, and on the Formula-A (F5000) circuit at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut and Canada’s St. Jovite, with the opening title sequence filmed with James Garner and Scooter Patrick competing in Mexico’s Baja 1000.
For the many of you who would like to buy the film on DVD, the producers are currently making efforts toward securing the proper licensing in order to make this film available to the general public. As soon as that becomes possible – if it ever does become possible – we will post that information on this website.
The following is the text of a program written for a special screening of “The Racing Scene” honoring James Garner at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles on January 29, 2003. The evening brought together Garner and his film crew once again to enjoy the success of the evening’s sold-out attendance of 450 guests.
My feature article “The Making of The Racing Scene” was published in the March/April 2011 issue of Vintage Motorsport magazine.]
THE RACING SCENE production cast, crew and notes:
Starring James Garner, as himself, with featured Garner Racing Team drivers:Scooter Patrick, Lothar Motschenbacher, Dave Jordan, and Ed Leslie. Also with drivers Parnelli Jones, John Surtees, Chris Amon, Andrea deAdamich, Roger Penske, Mario Andretti, Mark Donohue, Sam Posey, David Hobbs, John Cannon, George Wintersteen, and Bob Bondurant, with a special appearances by Dick Smothers, and Miss Continental Racing Queen Majken Kruse. Directed by Andy Sidaris Written by William Edgar Produced by Barry Scholer Music by Don Randi Cinematography by Earl Rath Sound by Pierre Adidge Edited by James Gross Associate Producer: Irvine Leonard Technical Advisor: Donald Rabbitt Production Coordination: Beverly Mulconery In cooperation with Sports Car Club of America A Cherokee Productions Barry Scholer-Andy Sidaris Presentation. A Filmways Picture.
ESSAY: James Garner’s The Racing Scene: Its Place Among Auto Racing Films For Theaters, By William Edgar
Something you no doubt already know is that Hollywood and the racing-about of automobiles have been thrill partners for a long, long time. Early on, there were the old Keystone Comedies and most primitive of filmed car chases and races. Later it was Mickey Rooney and his race track hijinks in The Big Wheel, and Clark Gable’s To Please A Lady, both with story line and star ending up in preposterous wheel-to-wheel duels at the Indy 500. That was 1949 and 1950 respectively, about the time I started attending real races where the finish was not already scripted. Concurrently, a new awareness of what auto racing really was, in fact, was changing Hollywood, and its racing movies began looking a bit more like reality at the tracks. But still there were those mid-1960s throwbacks: Elvis Presley as race car driver “Lucky” Jackson in Viva Las Vegas, and Blake Edwards’ The Great Race with its dedication to Laurel and Hardy ample to define the film. The Love Bug, concerning a race-prepped VW Beetle named “Herbie,” followed, to no surprise. Meanwhile, when in need of bona fide auto racing on-screen, I turned to the amazing Shell historical films of the Grand Prix, as well as getting lost in my own dreams of someday making racing films – about real racing.
In the early 60s, before those Elvis and Edwards flings, a certain short racing film made for theater came on the scene to the delight of the few who saw it. Called The Sound of Speed, directed by sports car racer Bruce Kessler, this beautifully shot 35mm gem showcased Lance Reventlow’s Scarab, with most of its photography at Riverside Raceway. There was no narration, only the natural sounds of racing, testing actually, with the audio track of the car presented in stereo, not common at that time. The film ran in a Los Angeles movie theater only a brief while, as Bruce and Lance’s effort to qualify it for an Academy Award in the theatrical documentary category. It was also entered at the Cannes Film Festival. Sadly, with only very limited release, The Sound of Speed disappeared from sight, and hearing. But for those who did see it, and heard it, this work stirred in them a desire to look deeper into the art of motor racing cinema, and doubtless inspired other filmmakers to action.
In 1966, something truly fresh began to happen when John Frankenheimer brought out his huge movie, Grand Prix, titled after that resoundingly elite world it strived to enter. Frankenheimer’s earnest assault on archetypical racing movies proved imaginatively brave and more believable, especially when his camera was in the race car, or shooting it from trackside streaking past. Audiences flocked to see this break-through movie, if only for its superb action and violent crashes, along with outstanding cinematography. And all eyes went to James Garner as fictitious American driver Pete Aron going up against the best of international GP maestros, many of whom were actual world class drivers playing parts. World Diving Champion Phil Hill was a chap called Tim Randolph, while the other Hill, the British Graham, became Bob Turner. We were getting there, but with many laps to go.
That same year from France came Claude Lelouch’s A Man And A Woman, and with it a race driver’s passion that all but substituted for racing reality, a stylistic conceit that would be repeated a decade later through Al Pacino’s title role in the brooding moto-drama, Bobby Deerfield. Would racing on the screen ever really be racing? We all wondered.
In 1969, three years after Grand Prix and testing a new age when movie goers plainly wanted more than pastiche, two new racing films got underway. One was Winning, an Indy-based picture starring Paul Newman and Robert Wagner. Playing rival drivers called Joe and Luther, Paul and RJ looked correct in a race car and, helped along by Newman’s love for and understanding of legitimate racing, the movie worked for many. The other racing production before the cameras that year had James Garner, again, in the lead. This time, in The Racing Scene, Jim was playing just Jim, now more team owner than driver, with the film’s mission to break Hollywood’s racing movie mold. It was, to be absolutely honest about it, that dreaded marquee put-off spelled D-o-c-u-m-e-n-t-a-r-y. This is where I came in, as documentary film writer with a privileged upbringing on the sidelines of sports car motor racing.
Two years earlier I had paired with ABC Sports hotshot director Andy Sidaris, who was doing Wide World of Sports. With Andy directing and me writing, we made a high-profile television special for ABC on the life and speedy times of Craig Breedlove. It was in the exhaust flames and dust of Breedlove’s record-breaking jet car that Andy and I, with finances pulled together by producer Barry Scholer, began The Racing Scene project in the company of fellow racing aficionado James Garner.
Jim was primed for the picture and ready to roll film, in this case an economical wide-screen color 35mm process called Techniscope, and, in essence, we set out to make our auto racing version of surfing’s The Endless Summer.
By the first weeks of 1969 we were in the initial outline stage, as meetings with Garner, his American International Racing (AIR) team, and the Sidaris-Scholer production group got underway. Our first outing of cameras, cast and crew at the end of January was the 24 Hours of Daytona with Garner’s two Lola T-70 coupes. Jim’s Ed Leslie/Lothar Motschenbacher car finished 2nd and his Dave Jordan/Scooter Patrick driving duo came 7th. Not a bad start for AIR and our film, we all agreed. Then, in March, at the 12 Hours of Sebring, we took our first really hard knocks.
The film was not all about closed course racing. Garner himself had run the grueling Baja California off-road race the year before and done well. We used that 16mm action and aerial footage to build our split screen opening segment of The Racing Scene, inserting 35mm scenes of Jim and his co-driver Scooter Patrick as they wrestled with their Ford Bronco.
With a lot of effort and long shooting days and nights helmed by Sidaris, and 6-day weeks in the cutting room on Sunset Boulevard, with editor Jim Gross, our film was actually coming together.
By July we had an hour-long rough cut of The Racing Scene and were showing it to agents and potential distributors. It looked good and felt great. But we needed more races. In early August, at a meeting of Garner, Filmways’ Martin Ransohoff who was producing Catch-22, and Frank Wells who would years later be president of Disney Studios, it was decided to buy a new John Surtees open-wheel car and enter the final races of the 1969 Formula A series. Timing caused us to miss the Mosport Formula A event in Canada on August 24th, but the very next day, after shooting scenes of Jim driving northbound over the Golden Gate Bridge, we were at Sears Point track testing the Surtees car just in from England. There was plenty of work ahead to make it competitive. We were indeed crossing our own bridges and getting it on!
Our tempo quickened with the new car and challenge at hand. We did a Filmways publicity screening on August 27th, and three days later were on a plane to Connecticut to run the Surtees car in its first race, at Lime Rock Park, on Labor Day. And labor it was, working in the heat and “hummiddy” – as Jim, by repeating, kept us in laughs – of the Litchfield Hills. Our spirits went to red line. But, governed by the consequences of real racing far from Hollywood, we were again down and out of luck on the Lime Rock circuit, and with only a week to make things better for St. Jovite in the Mount Tremblant region outside Montreal.
On Sunday September 7th at St. Jovite we finally got the Surtees running in top form, with Scooter Patrick at the wheel. But the spectacular and fully filmed first lap pile-up that included Scooter would take us out for good. There would be no more races for The Racing Scene. What we did have in the can was a real film on real racing, and a spot-on picture of what it was to run a racing car team – the whole truth of it, all the Good and the Bad. Scooter survived the crash without a scratch, so there was really no Ugly. We had played every foot of film for what might happen, and not knowing it until it did. As Jim said in the film’s beginning, from behind the wheel of his revving Baja Ford Bronco, “Ask me if we think we can go down the road quicker than 300 other guys, I’d probably say ‘We sure as hell are gonna find out!’”
The rest of The Racing Scene production story is follow-up, leading toward a theatrical release of the film. We busied ourselves shooting loose ends to make certain scenes work, such as the airplane and airport, and other visual and story links. By October 17th there was a completed cut screening at Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood, and two weeks of changes later, using a 35mm Moviola in a spare bedroom at home, I began writing narration-to-picture. Jim loved what I wrote, but it was through our year-long association, one of the best times in my life, that I really got to know Garner’s mind about racing and the way he expressed himself.
My goal was to make Jim’s words in our film truly what he was thinking and then to write it how he would say it. We recorded Garner at mid-December in a 2-day session, laid in his narration, and dubbed The Racing Scene at the end of February 1970.
The anticipated theater release of The Racing Scene is a tale of hope and heartbreak. In screening after screening we delighted the press with our real racing film, but forever struggled with the mechanics of making a proper distribution of our “documentary” – again, that evil word. Warner Brothers turned it down, as did the other studios. Garner himself even considered coming to the rescue and follow his own course of distributing in the U.S. and Europe out-of-pocket. To say it was risky business was no lie.
On April 23rd we put on happy faces and had a cast-&-crew showing of The Racing Scene at Goldwyn, congratulating ourselves on praise from gathered friends and the working press. Five days later, Garner and Sidaris meet with Marty Ransohoff, and others, where perhaps a dozen plans were considered to bring the film to the movie-going public. But all remained more or less up in the air. Eventually, The Racing Scene had a far-too-short release in smaller theaters scattered around the country, ending in a disintegration of the artist-distributor relationship between Jim’s Cherokee Productions and Marty’s Filmways. And, for years, The Racing Scene would go unseen, except for more recent occasional runs on cable television, commercials inserted.
Shortly after James Garner’s feature documentary dropped from view, another star with zeal for racing, Steve McQueen, playing a driver called Michael Delaney, experienced his own much-publicized disappointments while trying to make his film Le Mans the way he wanted it. The next year, Paul Newman signed to host a racing documentary special for television called Once Upon a Wheel, which I was brought in to write, and from that grew a series of half-hour TV documentaries on the Indy 500, NHRA Drags, AMA Dirt Track, NASCAR, Formula A, and Can-Am. All of it was about real racing, but all for the “little” screen.
The following year, after Andy Sidaris directed the ABC Sports coverage of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Sidaris and Trans World International joined Roone Arledge on ABC’s Championship Auto Racing television series, for which I again wrote narration. By then, the “big” screen seemed ever and ever more remote. Since those days, racing came back to the movie theater with Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder and Sly Stallone’s Driven, both efforts full of promise in the making but falling short in outcome. And these movie projects were followed by more. Who knows what will be next? Word is that several very ambitious motion pictures about racing are underway this year, with Ron Howard leading the way with a biggie about Formula One racing. We wish them success. It’s a tough road to drive. Senna was an adoration for an idol, a film well-done, a great example of what can be made. But the test of a movie should not rest on the death of an icon. Life needs to prevail.
In 1991, meeting face-to-face with Bernie Eccelstone, I pitched a big-budget, wide-screen documentary for theaters about Formula One racing that would follow an entire season on the F1 circuit. Instantly keen on the idea, Eccelstone agreed to open his essentially unapproachable world championship series to our cameras. The fee required by Bernie plus our projected production costs, totaling only a part of what regular movies demand and get was, alas, and after months of scrambling for funds, unobtainable.
“Documentary,” that assassin of full screen racing films for movie houses, closed us down again. Nonetheless, this whole story moved toward a delightful ending, a possible new beginning of appreciation for The Racing Scene. The Petersen Automotive Museum’s Bruce Meyer asked if I had a video copy of the Garner documentary. It was in the mail to him that same day. Bruce saw it, showed it to Margie and Robert Petersen (both gone now), and in no time we were putting together a “James Garner & The Racing Scene” night at the Museum. We right away contacted Jim, his drivers, and production crew for a grand reunion.
The show was January 29, 2003 – the sights and sounds of The Racing Scene came to life on the screen once more there at the Petersen. Call it the magic of our indefatigable interest in racing, and our respect and admiration for that fine gentleman of the sport, James Garner. Maybe we didn’t know how everyone would like going back to those racing days of 1969, but, to quote Jim at that time from his own wonderful racing film – “We sure as hell are gonna find out!”
Sadly, Andy Sidaris passed while arm-wrestling with throat cancer on March 7, 2007. He was loved by many and will be forever missed by all of us infected with his spirit of living and ability to see humor in practically anything. Andy’s incredible verve was honored with a screening of The Racing Scene at the 2008 Southern Yosemite Automotive Film Festival where his widow, the lovely Arlene Sidaris, was presented an award for her husband’s life’s work in television, documentary and feature movie production. He kept all of us in stitches all of the time, and he was proud of saying of himself, “Nobody in Hollywood pays faster than Sidaris, and let that be a lesson!”
Until it’s available, The Racing Scene remains in the garage, waiting for a new driver and a new track to tackle. The time will come. It will happen. ♦
Postscript: Family, friends and fans lost James Garner on July 19, 2014. Jim was 86; the cause of death was heart attack.
Jim is remembered on this website at https://edgarmotorsport.com/2014/07/