Dr. Alan Pollack
It’s as if lightning has struck twice in the Santa Clarita Valley.
The tragic auto crash resulting in the deaths of “Fast & Furious” movie star Paul Walker and his friend and former racing partner Roger Rodas – co-owner of the Valencia car customization and race prep shop, Always Evolving – brings back the painful memory of another legendary actor who spent part of his last day in the SCV before meeting an untimely demise in his sports car.
Walker and Rodas were killed Saturday, Nov. 30, in a red 2005 Porsche Carrera GT, minutes after leaving a charity event being held at their store in the Valencia Industrial Center. Rodas was thought to be in the driver’s seat and apparently lost control of the car, which slammed into a light pole and tree before erupting into flames. The two men died almost instantly from injuries sustained in the crash. Authorities now believe speed was a factor, with the Porsche traveling at least 90 mph in a 45-mph zone.
Just like Paul Walker, “Rebel Without a Cause” star James Dean had a passion for auto racing.
Shortly after completing his third and final film, “Giant,” Dean and his 29-year-old mechanic friend Rolf Wuetherich set out from Hollywood on the morning of Sept. 30, 1955, to compete in an auto race at the Salinas airport.
They decided to break in Dean’s new silver Porsche 550 Spyder on the way up to the race.
After leaving Hollywood, Dean and Wuetherich came up Highway 99 (now Interstate 5) into the Santa Clarita Valley.
At the site of present-day Marie Callender’s restaurant at today’s Magic Mountain Parkway and The Old Road was Tip’s Restaurant Saugus Road.
Although it’s a matter of some debate, in a 1985 interview with former Newhall Signal publisher Tony Newhall, restaurant manager Carmen Cummings insisted that Dean stopped at Tip’s that day and sat at the counter. He is said to have ordered apple pie and milk.
At a minimum, he was in the SCV.
After leaving our valley, Dean was cited for speeding on Highway 99 south of Bakersfield. He then drove his Porsche toward the west along today’s Highway 46, stopping briefly at Blackwell’s Corner for a snack.
James Dean’s fatal crash scene outside of Cholame, 1955. Click image to read more about it.
Soon after leaving Blackwell’s, Dean drove his way into legend and history when he crashed his Porsche into a Ford Custom Tudor coupe driven by 23-year-old Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student Donald Turnupseed as the Ford attempted a left turn from the highway just outside the small town of Cholame near Paso Robles.
Ironically, Dean, known for his love of speed, was estimated by police to be traveling only 55 mph at the time of the collision. Due to the low light of the twilight hour, Turnupseed could not see Dean’s approaching low-lying auto and they crashed head-on, leaving the Porsche in a crumpled mass at the side of the road.
Dean was taken to Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead later that evening. His passenger, Wuetherich, survived but sustained major injuries and required a long rehabilitation period.
In a way, James Dean’s and Paul Walker’s lives have intersected at a crossroads in history. The circumstances of their last day are eerily similar.
Both men shared a love of speed and racing. Both died tragically at a young age, Walker at 40, Dean at 24.
Both started their drive at a high-end car shop – Walker at Always Evolving in Valencia, Dean at Competition Motors in Hollywood.
Both were in a limited edition, 2-seater Porsche with their friends and racing partners at the time of their deaths, both on the 30th of the month.
Dean’s last movie, “Giant,” was released after his death. Walker’s last completed film, “Hours,” is to be released posthumously Friday. (A seventh installment in the “Fast & Furious” series hasn’t finished shooting, and it’s not clear exactly how it will be completed.)
Both men spent at least a part of their last day in the Santa Clarita Valley.
Walker also shares with Dean a huge international fan base. More importantly, he is remembered as a kind and generous man, much beloved by the people who knew him best, including the many friends he had right here in Santa Clarita.
While his life was already the stuff of legend, Paul William Walker IV sadly joins the legendary fraternity of entertainers who were taken from us too soon in the last century – luminaries like Marilyn Monroe, Buddy Holly, John Lennon, Elvis Presley – and James Byron Dean.
Dr. Alan Pollack is president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.
[Click here] to read more about James Dean’s final ride.