James Dean goes racing, 1955

Here’s a rather lovely little bit of film for fans of the grassroots sports car racing promoted by the Sports Car Club of America in the 1950s – breeding ground for practically every American driver to make a splash on the international scene. This particular film shows the May race meeting of 1955 in Santa Barbara, California and it shows one of the locals getting involved in the action – Hollywood heart throb, James Dean.

Santa Barbara’s circuit was a temporary affair at Goleta airport – a wartime airfield that became the regional airport and hosted both drag racing and circuit racing – the SCCA having events each May and September.

The May race was a two-day affair on Memorial Day weekend but Dean had missed all of the action on Saturday because he was getting his hair done. Such was the studio system at the time that, with filming barely complete on his seminal Rebel Without a Cause, the newest hot-shot in Hollywood was already in for duty on his next feature, Giant.

Presumably rather frustrated at the delay, Dean left as soon as he could without bothering to inform anyone involved in the film where he was heading. He charged up the Pacific Coast Highway to be reunited with the car that he would be racing the next day – his white Porsche 365 Speedster.

Dean qualified only 18th but drove a strong race, climbing as high as fourth until the Porsche burnt a piston, putting him out of the weekend’s action. In the film shot at the event, the slight, bespectacled figure with a cigarette permanently drooping from his lips seems quite at ease – even posing quite happily with a couple of fans.

What the weekend had shown Dean was that, as a racer, his Porsche 356 could no longer make the grade. He had to find something faster if his talents were going to be rewarded. Before then, however, there was another movie to made and when it was made clear to Warner Brothers and the production team on Giant how their star man was spending his weekends, a memo was sent banning him from competition for the duration of the shoot.

With a difficult cast headed by Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, motor racing would have seemed like an uncomplicated oasis that was frustratingly being kept out of reach. Dean apparently spent his down-time on set pondering the virtues of cars like an Offenhauser-powered Lotus until he bit the bullet and ordered another Porsche – in this case a 550 Spyder.

The cost was reportedly his old 356 in part-exchange plus $3,000 – which was a vast sum of money. But a new car to the specification with which Porsche was cleaning up in the smaller engine classes of sports car racing worldwide seemed like the obvious choice.

In September, with filming on Giant complete, Dean brought his 550 – chassis 550 0055 – back to his garage and began learning how it performed on the roads near his home. This ended up needing one or two repairs – so that when the next available meeting came up at Salinas, Dean decided to try and get more miles in the car by driving it there instead of trailering it.

And it was on the way to Salinas that Dean, driving hard, told his mechanic, Rolf Wütherich, sitting in the passenger seat, not to worry about the 1950 Ford coupé that was trying to turn across their path at the intersection on California Highway 466. “He’ll see us,” he said over the roar of the engine and the battering wind. And the rest is history…

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