Author Lee Raskin is a Porsche historian and author of James Dean At Speed. He is a leading authority on the passion for racing possessed by James Dean. His latest offering James Dean: On the Road to Salinas seeks to respectfully enlighten the reader to the truth of his death. The book also features the photos of Sanford Roth. The release is set to coincide with the 60th Anniversary of Dean’s passing and is available for pre-order now at stanceandspeed.com.
Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where are you from? What were you like as a child? What are some of your most fond automotive memories growing up?
During my formative years, I grew up in the middle of America — Omaha, Nebraska. My mother’s family owned a replacement auto parts and accessory business — Wolfson Auto Parts. I was always the curious type, particularly about mechanical parts. I liked to modify and ‘hot rod’ bicycles as a pre-teen. Affixing baseball cards onto the front bicycle fender supports to make a motorcycle sound seemed like a natural thing to do — until I owned a real motor bike.
Did you develop your love of cars early on?
Living in Omaha, I had the opportunity to see stock car and sports car racing at Playland Park Speedway and at the nearby Offutt AFB, where Gen. Curtis LeMay was the Commanding Officer who supported sports car racing in the mid-1950.
Attending sports car racing events with my Dad got me more interested in foreign cars during the 1950’s. While Chevrolet and Ford made two American sports cars, I was more interested in reading about the European sports cars that were found on the pages of Road & Track, and Sports Car Illustrated magazines. I would spend my entire allowance buying motorports magazines every month off the news stand at the local drug store.
At thirteen, I convinced my father to let me buy a fourth-hand 1948 Hiawatha “doodlebug” motor scooter which I could drive legally on the Omaha streets. Later, I traded up for a Yamaha motorbike at age 16 and like James Dean, drove it to high school every day, (except for snow) fifteen miles each way.
Are there any little known things about yourself that your readers might be surprised to learn?
My interest in James Dean started when he died in September, 1955. My older sister, Layni created a shrine in her bedroom – with hundreds of photos of Jimmy cut from the movie magazines and news articles. Her shrine was always inviting and I spent hours looking at all the articles and photos. Two photos in particular caught my interest. One was of Jimmy resting against his white 356 Porsche Speedster at a sports car race. The other showed him driving a new Porsche 550 Spyder, which he named, “Little Bastard.” Those two photos inspired me to become involved, eventually owning and racing 356 Porsches during my life.
Why do you think the love of cars and the love of speed so to speak have always held such appeal to so many?
Americans have always been drawn to motor vehicles. America’s fascination with auto racing is as old as the car itself. The first “race” likely took place when two drivers met on a dirt road to see how fast they could go and who had the fastest car. The new automobile industry soon discovered that racing was the most effective means for proving and promoting their product by advertising it in the newspaper or magazine. The automobile became more than just a vehicle for transportation. Owning a car also became part of a new found hobby — maintaining it, showing it off, and racing it as well.
Does it take a lot of dedication to become a Porsche historian? What is it about Porsche that made you want to become such?
I believe motorsports historians, generally are a curious group interested in learning about all the details. I always admired the styling of automobiles – how manufacturers changed their models with new designs from year to year. Porsche’s design concept has maintained the same unique presence since Professor Porsche introduced his first 356 model in 1948. I have owned 356 Porsches since 1960 and continued not only to own and drive one regularly, but to race Porsches competitively for over 40 years. Having been attached to this marque, I found it natural to be able to talk and write about various models…including the 356 Porsche Speedster and 550 Porsche Spyder that James Dean also owned and raced. The Porsche has always been an enduring sports car which survived where others did not. Being a Porsche historian has to do with having some longevity. I have luckily survived many of my Porsche mentors and predecessors.
What was it like being interviewed by Jay Leno for Jay Leno’s Garage? Do you enjoy having the chance work alongside other like-minded auto enthusiasts?
I was in Los Angeles at the annual Porsche Toy and Memorabilia Show, and at Autobooks in Burbank doing a James Dean book talk. Jay Leno stopped by and invited me to his car ‘museum’ and restoration shop also located in Burbank. Carroll Shelby had been formally invited and he was the real guest of the day. I got to watch Carroll and Jay being filmed as they talked about some of Shelby’s Cobras and Mustangs which Jay owned. Afterwards, Jay Leno interviewed/filmed me about my James Dean At Speed book which he had purchased previously.
Talking about motorsports with Jay Leno is always easy. He’s a great guy who appreciates the history and the mechanics of automobiles and motorcycles. His one of a kind motorsports collection is extensive and hand-selected. The interview lasted for about 15 minutes as Jay and I talked about James Dean‘s passion for speed and the legacy he left for future generations, particularly surrounding his Porsches – the 356 Speedster and 550 Spyder.
What was it about James Dean, aside from the obvious love of racing that made you take an interest in his life as an individual?
It wasn’t until I began more extensive research during 2003-2004 for my 50th Anniversary book, James Dean At Speed, when I realized James Dean’s family life, as mine, paralleled in so many ways while we both were growing up. I discovered that we were both nine years old when our mothers died. James Dean’s death occurred one year and one month after my mother and grandmother were killed in a commercial airplane crash near Mason City, Iowa. Like Jimmy, I was always smaller than most of my friends. I wore glasses to correct my near-sighted vision just as Jimmy. I was shy and lacked confidence, but came out of my shell through competitive sports in high school. We both were at ease while telling stories and we had the same exact passion for motorsports.
Do you think the world has always focused too much on the fame aspect of his life and not enough on who he was as a person?
The media certainly has focused on his fame as a young actor, but not so much beyond that scenario. After 60 years, James Dean still reigns supreme as a real American icon. It has always been difficult to get a real take on James Dean’s personality. Interestingly, Jimmy wasn’t in one geographical location long enough to develop a long term relationship with his new found friends. Lew Bracker was perhaps the closest friend that Jimmy had during the eighteen months he lived in Southern California. The media has never really understood who the true James Dean actually was. He was often portrayed as a ‘Rebel’ wearing the famous red jacket. Actually, he never wore that red jacket off the set of Rebel Without a Cause. It was just a prop for Jim Stark to wear, but the media still loved to insert that red windbreaker into their stories about James Dean.
What would you say are some of the most fascinating things you have learned about him over the course of your career?
Beyond reading other authors’ “spin “on James Dean, I learned a lot from listening to Marcus Winslow, Jr, Jimmy’s younger cousin, who shared some of his personal stories when they both grew up living on the farm in Fairmount. Mark Winslow was kind enough to share his stories in both my books, while writing the Foreword to each. Jimmy was superstitious about numbers. His Fairmount High basketball and baseball number was “3.” Later Jimmy had to select ‘provisional’ California Sports Car Club and Sports Car Club of America race numbers for the Palm Springs (#23), Bakersfield (#123), Santa Barbara (#33 and #233) , and Salinas (#130) sports car race — they all contained his lucky number “3.” In 2004, I was standing in the Fairmount Historical Museum looking over some FHS photos of Jimmy’s athletic endeavors when I saw the “3” jumping out at me. No other writer or author had ever figured out the origin of that mystery.
I understand you have maintained a close relationship to the Winslow family over the years. What do you love most about them as people? Do you admire how hard they work to keep the memory of James Dean alive?
Sometime during the mid-1980’s I received a telephone call one night from Mark Winslow, who introduced himself as a cousin to James Dean. Of course I knew the name and the relationship, but had never met him or been at Fairmount for a James Dean Festival before. Mark wanted to ask me about Jimmy’s Porsche Speedster and Spyder. He had read some magazine articles I wrote about Jimmy’s Porsches. Ever since, we have been good friends and speak often about Jimmy and his motorsports endeavors.
Mark Winslow is the supreme torch bearer for James Dean…not just around Fairmount, but universally. Both Mark and his spouse, Marylou are undoubtedly the kindest folks when it comes to extending themselves to the thousands of strangers who knock on their farm house door seeking information about James Dean. Mark Winslow has also been instrumental in trying to preserve the remnants of the Fairmount High School stage where Jimmy performed.
Yes, I admire everyone who participates in preserving James Dean’s legend. David Loehr, a renowned James Dean archivist who maintains the James Dean Gallery in Fairmount, has recently taken the lead for creating and developing the new James Dean Birth Site Memorial in nearby Marion which will debut on September 30th. Others throughout the world also maintain dozens of social media sites promoting James Dean’s name and his legacy.
What are your feelings on the uniquely charming town of Fairmount, Indiana?
You can read all you want about James Dean growing up in Fairmount, but once you really get to spend some time in the community, you can see how it is truly unique. The town with one main street has just one traffic signal at Main and Washington. Fairmount has barely changed over the decades. The town folks are all so proud of their two favorite sons, James Dean and Jim Davis, who is the creator of Garfield the cat. Dean, of course has always remained the coolest guy around town.
Time isn’t as important when you are visiting Fairmount…there isn’t a sense of being rushed to be anywhere at any particular time for most things. Interestingly, Fairmount was named after the magnificent Fairmount Park and Zoo in Philadelphia. A group of dedicated Quakers with a kind spirit for helping others actually settled in Indiana during the mid-1800’s to establish the community. It thrived economically especially after 1900 with the discovery of gas and became part of that Indiana boom. Fairmount’s name sake and spirit remains just as true today.
Are you honored to be a guest speaker at this year’s events?
I am truly honored to be an invited speaker for the September 30th Memorial Service. After being involved as a historian and now as a ‘double’ James Dean author…I think my time has arrived to speak to a gathering of faithful ‘Deaners.’ I have many thoughts in mind, but I will focus on just one major theme – keeping the torch bright and alive for James Dean while heading into the future with a younger generation of devotees.
Can you tell us a little about James Dean: On the Road to Salinas? What led you to create this particular work? What do you hope to accomplish with this piece?
In 2005, I published my first hard-bound James Dean book….with a different twist from all the other 150 Dean publications. This one, a photo-narrative was about Jimmy–his growing up, becoming an actor, making three big screen movies…but it also included a detailed narrative wrapped around 200 images which for the first time, focused on his true passion for racing sports cars. James Dean At Speed ended with the fatal crash at Cholame on 9-30-55, but also included an amazing 50 year Epilogue to 2005.
For 2015, to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of James Dean’s death, I wrote a sequel to At Speed, which picks up Jimmy’s story in 1954 when he left New York City for Southern California to make East of Eden. Writing James Dean: On The Road To Salinas has been a labor of love for the past seven years. Finally the 60th Anniversary is upon us — the new book will debut at Fairmount for the 40th Annual James Dean Festival. I plan to be hosting book talks, signings, and trivia quizzes during the entire festival weekend at both the James Dean Historical Museum, and the James Dean Gallery.
James Dean: On The Road To Salinas will become the definitive biography on James Dean’s life during 1955…including day by day and hour by hour details on his trip to Salinas during 9-30-55. Beyond that fateful day, the book will also detail the ‘botched’ California Inquest following his death, the real story about what happened to James Dean’s Porsche Spyder — the “Little Bastard,” along with a complete debunking of all the myths, rumors, factoids, and death curses that other writers and authors have embellished over the past 60 years. There is also a tribute to photographer, Sanford Roth with dozens of his rare and legendary photos of Jimmy, including the last day of his journey as well as other images that have never been published previously.
James Dean: On The Road To Salinas will debut on Sept. 25th and will be available during the entire James Dean Festival at a substantial discount from the retail price…including an inscription and signature by the author…and a selfie as well. Peter Bodensteiner of Stance and Speed is the publisher. The book size is 9”x 9”; it contains 160 pages, 225 images/photos (with 70 color images). The publisher’s web site is www.stanceandspeed.com
What do you think is key to a life well lived?
I believe that the key to a life well lived may be quite different for each of us depending upon our own opportunities, aspirations, and goals which we set and achieve along the way.
Certainly James Dean’s life was very brief at only twenty-four years, but I believe that he certainly lived life to the fullest.
James Dean’s most quoted thought certainly comes to mind:
“Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.”
Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?
Thank you for this opportunity to express my heart-felt thoughts with respect to James Dean, the community of Fairmount in Grant County, Indiana, and for the success of the upcoming 40th James Dean Festival — commemorating the legend and legacy of Jimmy.
Lee Raskin, JD