Chasing Down James Dean

I don’t usually dig up old articles here, but in the name of James Dean and the anniversary of his death, I will. 

Back in 2005 when I was 24, the same age as James Dean when he died, I was living in San Luis Obispo, CA, which is close to where Dean met his untimely death 50 years earlier on a highway in Paso Robles,  and I went on a kind of strange mission to channel his ghost.  

I remember originally coming across the site of his death while I was reporting another story. The thing about this stretch of highway is that it’s really in the middle of nowhere. There are a lot of vineyards up there now, and you see miles and miles of pinot noir grapes baking in the hot sun, but where he crashed, that far east, there’s really nothing. It must have been a lonely place to die. 


That, and some encouragement from an editor, led me to study his movies and also the man himself. I became sort of obsessed. I reasoned that I had to get in his car, or one like it because his was long gone, to really understand him. I figured if I could experience that same feeling he was searching for in his “Little Bastard,” then maybe it would reveal something about him, and I could, perhaps, get to understand him better. It also made for a good narrative. 

So I arranged to take laps in a Porsche Spyder, the same car he died in, at Laguna Seca in Monterey. It’s not the same track he was on his way to race at when he crashed, but it’s fairly close. I didn’t get to drive, which is a good thing because at the time I had a fractured right arm from a bike accident a week before. I remember I could barely hold onto the door to keep from sliding across the seat as the owner/driver of the car apexed through “The Corkscrew.” It was actually very painful.

By the second lap, my arm was throbbing.

Not nearly as cool. 

Not nearly as cool. 

I did the math and realized that a week after the story was published I had outlived Dean, which was a sort of a strange consolation. How and why I, a young reporter living in California, went to take laps in his same car at a racetrack and somehow “complete his mission” of that fateful night. More importantly, it was an awakening to the brevity of life and to Dean’s incredible body of work, which was small (just three movies) but still incredibly powerful. I don’t know, maybe it was just a contrived narrative and an excuse to take laps at Laguna Seca, but back then I did feel some strange connection to Dean in a way that maybe only a reckless 24-year-old could. 

If interested, you can read the original story here