James Dean
at Speed


William Nolan Interview:
AL Interviews William Nolan

(Acting was James Dean's profession, but racing was his passion. He would tell friends: "Racing is the only time I feel whole."

In the early 1950s sports car meets were held almost every weekend in California. In a six month period in 1955, Jimmy entered three meets and won several trophies driving his Porsche Speedster.

William Nolan was then a young driver and aspiring writer who witnessed two of Dean's races. Later, Nolan went on to write Men of Thunder (Bantam Books, 1965), a collection of articles about racing, and a biography of the late actor, Steve McQueen.

In this exclusive interview with American Legends, William Nolan remembers the excitement of watching James Dean at speed.)

AL: James Dean joined the Southern California Sports Car Club in 1955. What was the racing scene like back then?

WN: It was an exciting time. Almost every weekend there was a race somewhere: Santa Barbara, Riverside, Hansen Dam--just outside Los Angeles. All those circuits are closed now. In the 1950s, a young driver could gain experience and do well quickly. And James Dean did.

AL: When did you first meet Dean?

WN: I met him at a race in Palm Springs in March 1955. He had done only one movie--East of Eden--but everybody knew who he was. We all kind of empathized with him--a young actor who was obviously going places.

AL: What was he like as a driver?

WN: Jimmy was tough on engines. The kind of driver who was known as a "lead foot." He had a Porsche Speedster which he had "souped up." As I recall, he redid the carburetor and took off the windshields to cut down on the drag. In his first race in Palm Springs, Dean won by a quarter lap. It took a lot of skill to win in a "street machine."

AL: Some of Dean's fellow drivers regarded him as a daredevil. The late Ken Miles called Jimmy "a straight-away driver," meaning Dean's track was "the shortest distance between here and there."

WN: Dean took chances. In his second race at Santa Barbara (over Memorial Day Weekend, 1955), Jimmy started eighteenth and moved up to fourth overall. In passing the pack, he bounced off two hay bales before the car died on him. Afterward, he admitted: "I blew the engine. I pushed too hard." He didn't want to place. He wanted to win.

AL: If he had lived, what kind of driver would James Dean have become?

WN: I think he would have been a lot like Steve McQueen. Steve was a tough competitor. In 1970 at Sebring, Mario Andretti had to use two factory Ferraris to beat McQueen.

AL: Did you ever see Dean in his famous Porsche Spyder?

WN: No, but I saw the Spyder after the crash in which Jimmy was killed. It was stored in the back of a garage in Hollywood. The aluminum body was so torn and twisted that nobody could have lived through that crash.

AL: But Dean's mechanic, Rolf Weutherich, survived.

WN: That's right. He was thrown from the Spyder. He wasn't wearing a seatbelt. I talked to Rolf later. He said Dean spotted the other car, and his last words were, "He'll see us." But the Ford's driver apparently didn't see them--and turned in front of the Porsche. Rolf blamed Dean: he thought he should have taken evasive action.

AL: How did Dean's death affect you?

WN: I was living in Culver City with my father when I heard the news. I was very shaken: to me it was incredible that so promising a sports car driver could die on the road like that.


This fascinating documentary will appeal to fans of James Dean and racing enthusiasts alike.

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(Running time 50 minutes)

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