Just East of Eden…
In 1955, the Salinas Optimist Club announced plans to stage a sports car road race on the 2.8-mile tarmac of the Salinas Municipal Airport, with the proceeds going to the Salinas Boys Club. Similar charitable races had been held at the Palm Springs, Bakersfield, and Santa Barbara Airports in California.
The Salinas race would be held on Sunday, October 2, 1955 and would be officially sanctioned by the San Francisco Region of the Sports Car Club of America.
There would be 140 top sports car drivers in nine races beginning at 10:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. Temporary grandstand seating will accommodate 5,000 spectators. General admission would be $1.50 for adults and children under 12 would be admitted free when accompanied by an adult.
James Dean had heard about the proposed Salinas road race in the California Sports Car Club September newsletter. Dean thought this could be his first opportunity to get back into his racing passion after a long wait throughout the summer while he was filming Giant.
On September 21st, James Dean impulsively traded-in his Porsche 356 Super Speedster on a brand new 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder at Competition Motors in Hollywood. He also filled-out a SCCA application to enter the new Porsche Spyder in the upcoming Salinas Road Races.
James Dean wanted to race at Salinas as a celebrity racer, especially since his successful East of Eden movie had been filmed in the nearby Pacific Ocean community of Mendocino. Jimmy knew this would be a terrific opportunity for publicity and he persuaded his photographer friend, Sanford Roth to travel with him and to cover this race weekend for Collier's magazine. It was all very exciting.
On Friday afternoon, 9-30-55, James Dean was photographed by his Porsche mechanic Rolf Wutherich, while standing next to the Porsche 550 Spyder at a Mobil gas station on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, CA on their way to the Salinas Road Races. In the background is James Dean's 1955 Ford station wagon that was hooked up to a car trailer, being driven by Bill Hickman, a Warner Bros. stunt man, and accompanied by photographer, Sanford Roth.
Later in the afternoon, while heading north and then west toward Salinas, James Dean and Rolf Wutherich, in the “Little Bastard” Porsche Spyder, found themselves speeding down a very long grade on CA Route 466 in Central California and into an ‘unguarded moment’ -- as their Porsche suddenly crashed into an oncoming 1950 Ford Custom coupe being driven by a twenty-three-year-old college student, Donald Turnupseed. Turnupseed was making a left turn at the Cholame junction and failed to see the oncoming Porsche. A violent crash resulted at approximately 5:45 P.M. PST. There were injuries and twenty-four-year-old James Dean tragically died at the accident scene.
On 9-30-55, the legend of this American icon began -- on the road to Salinas.
The next day, the 1955 Salinas Road Race was held at the Salinas Airport. It would be remembered in motorsports history where a celebrity actor and racer was scheduled to drive his new Porsche 550 Spyder at Salinas, but the horrific news surrounding James Dean’s death took precedent over the entire race weekend.
In 1977, a Japanese businessman and devoted James Dean fan, Seita Ohnishi, of Kobe, Japan designed and erected a lasting memorial to the actor at the tiny hamlet of Cholame, California where the accident occurred. Built of reflective chromium beams that surround a Chinese sumac tree, called a “Tree of Heaven,” the structure reflects the accident site 1.5 miles east at the Cholame Junction. The Cholame memorial commemorates James Dean’s life and his death with a universal symbol of infinity, signifying immortality.
In 2005, the 50th Anniversary of James Dean’s death, the State of California, through a Senatorial proclamation, dedicated the Route 46/41 Junction at Cholame in James Dean’s memory. At a ceremony on Friday, September 30th, State of California dignitaries, James Dean’s family, friends, authors, archivists, invited guests, and devotees gathered at the Cholame Junction for a brief unveiling of the James Dean Memorial Junction highway signs for both sides of the roadway facing east and west.
About the blogger and author:
Lee Raskin is an internationally recognized expert on James Dean and his motorsports exploits. Lee is also the author and co-author of three acclaimed photographic biographic publications…James Dean: At Speed; James Dean: On The Road To Salinas; and Porsche Speedster TYP 540: Quintessential Sports Car.
Lee is best known as an early Porsche historian and authority on James Dean’s brief but spectacular Porsche racing career.
James Dean: On The Road To Salinas is Lee’s most recent biography, commemorating the 60th Anniversary of James Dean’s tragic death in 1955.
More information about Lee Raskin and his James Dean and Porsche-related photographic biographies can be found at: www.leeraskin.net