James Garner

James Garner is set to drive a Bronco racer in the Baja Race in 1969. (File photo)

The motor-racing world lost one of its biggest fans with the death of actor James Garner at 86.

Garner, who died Saturday, starred in a movie about racing ("Grand Prix" in 1966), competed in events such as the Baja 1000 off-road race and owned a race team at one time.

He also drove the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 three times (1975, 1977 and 1985) and was a frequent visitor at speedways around the country, especially in Southern California.

Even when he wasn't in the pace car, Garner at times was an Indy 500 spectator, sometimes with fellow actor and part-time racer Paul Newman at his side.

"The first time I got acquainted with Jim was in 1968 when he raced in the Baja 1000 in Mexico," Parnelli Jones, the 1963 Indy 500 winner, said in a statement. Garner "raced in a lot of different types of cars over the years."

Indianapolis Motor Speedway President J. Douglas Boles said in a statement that Garner "was a true friend of the Indianapolis 500" and that the actor "was also a skilled driver."

Garner's love of cars and racing first took hold during the filming of "Grand Prix," in which he starred as an American Formula One driver named Pete Aron.

In 2006, the late Shav Glick, the longtime motor-racing writer for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a story recalling the time Garner was competing in an off-road race in the desert north of Las Vegas in the early 1970s.

Garner's car quit in a silt bed and, when he returned to his hotel, the actor still was covered with a fine dust that made him almost unrecognizable.

When he walked in, he spotted his wife, Lois, and spread out his arms as if to hug her. Lois jumped back and said, "Don't you touch me."

That prompted Jean Calvin, a racing writer standing nearby, to say: "A thousand women downtown would die happily for an opportunity like that, and she turns him down. Sometimes life's just not fair."

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