James Dean had chance to be greatest Indy 500 driver ever
Those professional drivers, the ones who had devoted their lives to racing, they weren’t fond of this too-cool Hollywood intruder, chain smoking his way onto the tracks.
He came in with his hair slicked to perfection, wearing a black nylon racing suit — made specially by a seamstress, like some wardrobe fitting from Broadway. There weren’t black racing suits then, but Dean wanted one. So he got one.
Hollywood had given him the means. This actor who had snagged over-thetop accolades on the big screen for “East of Eden” now had the money to pursue his childhood dream.
Dean was an Indiana boy who grew up on the far outskirts of Indianapolis, the heart of racing’s capital of the world, and he was ready to conquer his next big feat.
“Racing — that was really his primary focus toward the end of his life,” said Dorothy Schultz, a Dean historian who is on the board of the Fairmount Historical Museum, the town where Dean was raised. “Not really acting, like most people thought. Racing was his passion.”
Dean showed up in Palm Springs, then Bakersfield and then Santa Barbara racing his 356 Porsche Speedster.
He was good. No. He was great.
“That really got him a lot of respect from veteran race car drivers,” said Schultz. “Because they see James Dean and they think he’s some hotshot celebrity doing it for publicity and they weren’t really taking him seriously. And James Dean was like, ‘Uh, uh, I’m going to show you.’” He was going to show them he wasn’t some playboy actor.
No. Acting was simply Dean’s ticket to one day race on the biggest stage in America — the Indianapolis 500.
A fast start in Fairmount
A love of speed came early for Dean, inspired by his uncle Marcus Winslow, the man who would end up being Dean’s father figure.
James Byron Dean was born Feb. 8, 1931, the son of a dental technician and a farmer’s daughter, Winton A. and Mildred Wilson Dean, in the Seven Gables apartment house in Marion, Ind.
Shortly after, the family moved to Fairmount and, when Dean was five, to California. Dean was extraordinarily close with his mother. When she died of cancer when Dean was 9, his father sent him to a farm north of Fairmount to live with his aunt and uncle, Marcus and Ortense Winslow.
Hidden in that childhood tragedy emerged a beautiful family life for Dean — and a path that led to something great. Uncle Marcus would set Dean’s love of racing into motion.
Uncle Marcus inspired a love of all sports for Dean who was a standout athlete in Fairmount, playing basketball, baseball and competing in track and field.
But he launched an even bigger passion for all things fast when, for Dean’s 16th birthday in 1947, Uncle Marcus gave Dean a motorcycle, a Czechoslovakia 125cc.
Townspeople would watch as Dean whizzed up and down Washington Street. He was always doing tricks on it.
“It really upped his cool factor,” Schultz said. “He was known in Fairmount as ‘one-speed Dean.’ “ One speed, as in fast. On school days, Dean would drive the motorcycle, which he had painted in his school colors, gold and black, to Fairmount High. Afterward, when he wasn’t playing sports, he was at the local motorcycle shop. It was right by the Winslow farm.
“He hung out there constantly,” said Schultz. “He would call pretend races with friends.”
For his high school graduation present, Dean’s Methodist minister James DeWeerd took him to the Indy 500 in 1949. That’s when Dean’s passion took off.
“His dream was to race in the Indy 500,” said Schultz. “Had he not died, oh, I think he definitely would have.”
Career cut short
Dean purchased his first Porsche, a 356 Super Speedster, in February 1955 and raced it at three California events.
The movie heartthrob who was set to begin filming “Rebel Without a Cause” showed up to a crowd at the Palm Springs Road Races on March 26, 1955.
“Neophyte Dean wasn’t given a chance by veteran followers of the burgeoning sport,” wrote Gus Vignolle in his MotoRacing tabloid. “But he surprised them all while his studio (Warner Bros.) was unaware its precious property was flying low at high speeds on the airport’s concrete runway.”
Dean crossed the finish line with a half-mile between his Super Speedster and the second-place finisher in the 2.3mile race. Vignolle reported that Dean’s reaction was, “Gee, I can’t believe it.”
In the next day’s final, Dean came in third but was bumped up to second when the winner was disqualified.
“Racing is the only time I feel whole,” Dean said that spring of 1955.
At the Bakersfield race, Dean performed almost as well — he was third in the main race, but first in his class. At Santa Barbara, he blew a piston and couldn’t finish. That was OK. He had plenty more races ahead of him.
“Like everything else, he did it full tilt,” said Wes Gehring, author of the biography “James Dean: Rebel With a Cause.” “He brought to (racing) the same kind of intensity he brought to acting.”
In September 1955, after those three successful races, Dean bought another Porsche, a 550 Spyder. He was headed to his fourth professional race in Salinas, Calif., in that Spyder when tragedy unfolded.
It was a cruel twist of fate that Dean’s love of speed ultimately led to his death.
Indy 500 was his dream
The studio had made it clear to Dean. The words were written in his contract. Absolutely no racing during the filming of “Giant.”
So Dean was ecstatic when his acting was done and it was time to head to another race, Schultz said. Just three days before his death, he went to the doctor for a physical. That doctor cleared him to head to the track.
Dean and his mechanic set off in the Spyder, driving it rather than having it hauled on a trailer, to give Dean more time behind the wheel..
Less than two hours before Dean’s death, officer Otie Hunter pulled him over for speeding. He warned Dean to slow down.
It was late in the day and the sun was sinking. A car coming from the opposite direction made an illegal left-hand turn in front of Dean, who was going 10 miles over the speed limit. Dean’s low, silver car blended in with the horizon. The aluminum Spyder didn’t have a chance.
Dean, 24, reportedly was killed instantly. He died Sept. 30, 1955. The other driver and Dean’s mechanic survived.
The next day, newspapers splashed front page headlines reporting the death of a Hollywood son. Lost in the spotlight of his acting was the death of a burgeoning racer, one who was looking to the 1956 Indianapolis 500.
“James Dean was a racer,” said Schultz. “His closest friends always said his one dream was to compete in the Indy 500.”
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via e-mail: dbenbow@indystar. com.