Paul Newman: Fast acting hero

Paul Newman might be a movie legend, but it's racing that lights his fire, he tells Gordon Kirby

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When you think of Paul Newman does Butch Cassidy spring to mind? Yeah, me too. That’s the thing about surviving as one of the great icons of Hollywood: you might be 79, but to the rest of us you will always be 44, immortalised by that wry smile and those piercing blue eyes.

Newman was the type of guy every man wanted to be and every woman wanted to be with. For the man himself, of course, it was never like that. “I’ve no physical grace,” he states. What? That’s hard to accept from ‘Fast Eddie’ Felson, but the modesty is genuine.

“I have done a lot of sports and done ’em all badly,” Newman continues. “I get my feet crossed up playing tennis and skiing, and I’m much too light to be a [gridiron] football player. But I liked motor racing and wanted to work at it. There were a couple of years when I was okay. Nothing flashy or spectacular, but it was the first time I had been graceful at something. I’d found something where I had some physical smoothness.”

Who would have thought it — the man who seemed to have everything needed motor racing. He still does. His passion for it burns as strongly now as it did in 1969.

In the same year that he co-starred with Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Newman took top billing in Winning, the story of a troubled racer who wins the Indianapolis 500. During the making of it he spent time hanging out with the likes of Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, Bobby Unser and AJ Foyt. Newman was hooked. And driving.

“When we did the film I worked on that side of things with Bob Bondurant and progressed from a Formula Vee to a Can-Am car,” Newman says. “I was very cautious because I didn’t know what I was doing. But Bob taught me well.”

Indeed. When Newman embarked on a midlife vocation as an amateur racer four years later, he won first time out: an SCCA regional event at Thompson, Connecticut, driving a Lotus Elan. He would go on to win the first of his four SCCA national titles in 1976, driving a Triumph. The three others were secured in Datsuns run by Bob Sharp’s team. Newman is particularly proud of his ’79 SCCA C-Production championship win at Road Atlanta: “There were a lot of Datsun factory teams who got a lot of help back in those days. But boy, I was hooked up that day! I pretty much ran away with it.”

That same year he finished a superb second in the Le Mans 24 Hours, co-driving a Porsche 935 with Rolf Stommelen and Dick Barbour: “There were three drivers and I don’t think I drove eight hours; I think I drove six. And I don’t remember being particularly fast there. Barbour remembers different. He says that I held up my end. I’m not trying to be modest here, I’m really just trying to be realistic.”

Despite this success, Newman never went back to race at Le Mans, because having to cope with the paparazzi at La Sarthe, he says, was one of the worst experiences of his life: “I would have gone back in a minute, except for the photographers. They were intolerable. I couldn’t get out of the pits; and I couldn’t see anything because the flash bulbs were blowing off. I never, ever had an experience as bad as that. When I went out jogging in the morning they were there, like locusts. So I just ran along holding my middle finger up.”

Back home Newman continued to compete regularly in Trans-Am. He won a couple of races, one at Brainerd in 1982, the other at Lime Rock four years later, but he downplays his contribution to those results: “I’ve driven a couple of good Trans-Am races. But don’t forget, I’ve always had very good equipment, which is a big help. With Gene Crowe I had a crew who could make some changes that worked based on the way I blinked.”

In the heyday of his driving career, between 1978 and ’81, Newman also ran his own Can-Am team in partnership with Bill Freeman. Among his drivers were Keke Rosberg, Bobby Rahal, Al Unser Snr, Danny Sullivan, Teo Fabi and Elliott Forbes-Robinson. The outfit was one of Carl Haas’s main rivals, but at the end of ’81 both men pulled their teams out of the dying series. Less than a year later they were partners (Carl made the first move) in a brand-new Indycar team, with Andretti driving. In their second year together, Mario guided the team to a CART championship.

Twenty-two years later, Newman-Haas Racing has won three further CART titles: Michael Andretti in ’91, Nigel Mansell in ’93 and Brazil’s Cristiano da Matta in 2002. It is ranked second only to Penske in terms of success. And Newman is no sleeping partner — he still attends almost every race and has emerged as one of the series’ most loyal supporters during its fierce struggle with the Indy Racing League.

But his appearances behind the wheel began to drop during the 1990s. In the previous decade he had logged over 60 Trans-Am starts, but his commitments to Newman-Haas, acting roles, the growth of his salad dressing business, plus a considerable amount of philanthropic work, took their toll on his racing. Then in 1995, just a few days after his 70th birthday, he co-drove a Roush-run Mustang in the Daytona 24 Hours with his old friend Mike Brockman, Trans-Am champion Tommy Kendall and NASCAR veteran Mark Martin. The foursome finished third overall, only eight laps behind the winning Kremer Porsche, and easily won the GTS class.

“I was okay when we won our class at Daytona, not spectacular, but not that far off,” Newman says. “When you’re driving with Mark Martin that’s a heck of a yardstick.” Once again, genuine modesty. In fact, Newman refuses to accept that he is actually good. “Don’t forget, I started out very slow. It took me a long time before I was able to do well. I had no natural skill for it at all. I’ve run some good races but I don’t think I’m a good racer. Sometimes, if I’m finding my feet, I seem okay, but I wouldn’t call myself an earth-shaker. I do not consider myself a hotshoe; I would call myself a journeyman.”

But it goes deeper than that. Paul’s wife of 46 years, accomplished actress Joanne Woodward, is convinced of it.

“When I started racing I’d already been in the motion picture business for 20 years. And Joanne thought that some of the passion that I had for racing bled back into what I was doing as an actor, because I had become bored, or boring. Once I started racing I never worked from May until October. That was always sacrosanct. I would not take a job. I think getting away from the business of making films, getting away from Hollywood and California, and that whole world out there, invigorated me.”

But it’s not only the competing that nourishes Newman. He takes as much pleasure from watching a great driver in action as he does from doing the job well himself. He recalls seeing Indycars go through the old Hyatt garage chicane complex at the Long Beach Grand Prix in the early 1990s, when Mario and Al Unser Jnr dominated the victory podium at the California street race.

“I remember watching them there. Incredible car control. Jesus! It was awesome to watch the good guys. It’s the same thing that makes a great skier. There’s something that they know that we normal human beings don’t. When they are right on the limit, they’re beautiful to watch.”

That enthusiasm is also evident when he talks about Newman-Haas’s attempt to win its fifth Champ Car title this year with either Sebastien Bourdais or Bruno Junqueira: “We have got one of the best teams in the business, a great crew of extremely experienced guys who work together like a true team. They all know exactly what the other guy’s thinking. And we’ve got two great drivers. Either can win the championship.

“It’s such a huge kick coming to each round knowing your team’s got a shot at winning.”

He might be approaching his ninth decade, but Newman remains in good physical shape — and the eyes still have it.

“I’m really very lucky. I keep my cholesterol down, my blood pressure is 120 over 76, my pulse is normally about 64. But I work at that. I work out 365 days a year and I am the master of the stairwell — I can tell the quality of a hotel by the stairwell. Joanne knows enough to say, if I’m missing, ‘Look in the stairwell’.”

Newman first started working out back in 1952 when he was an understudy to tough-guy actor Ralph Meeker in the award-winning Broadway play Picnic: “I was slender. I don’t know whether I was soft, but I didn’t have any muscle definition. The director said, ‘Hey, if you’re going to play an understudy to Meeker you better get to work’

“The only club I ever joined was the New York Athletic Club, and man, I was there at 9.30 every morning until noon. I had never been a runner but there was an indoor running track there and I ran and worked out.”

Even during a romance with Budweiser later in life, he maintained a rigorous workout schedule! “During my drinking days I used to do it as a penance: I got up every morning — and when you’re making a film sometimes that’s four o’clock — to work out for an hour.”

That blessing of good health allows him to continue racing today. He ran the Daytona 24 Hours again in 2000, and finished fifth in the rain last year in a Trans-Am race at Lime Rock, his home track: “That ain’t bad for an old guy. It was pouring; I knew where all the puddles were and knew right where to go.”

It was during 2003 that Newman and buddy Brockman put together their own team to race an ex-Paul Gentilozzi Riley & Scott Trans-Am-spec Corvette for Newman and a similar Camaro for Brockman. They run the cars out of a small workshop in the back of Brockman’s Volvo dealership in southwestern Connecticut. So far this year they have finished third and fourth in an SCCA GT1 at Road Atlanta in April; a second and third in another SCCA race at Lime Rock followed in June, in which Newman qualified on pole in a 30-car field and fought for the lead all the way.

He also returned to Daytona this year to drive one of the new Grand-Am prototypes, a Fabcar Porsche. Incessant rain left the track very slick and almost a quarter of the race was held under full-course yellows. It was eventually red-flagged. With his windscreen wiper smearing rather than clearing, Newman had a miserable time.

“I did not cover myself with glory,” he insists. “I spun three times in five laps. The rubber on the wiper was whapping around like a ponytail. I couldn’t see anything. I just thought, ‘This is stupid’. So I got out of the car.

“I was ready to go out again with some kind of renewed vigour when fortunately the car blew up. Anybody who says they like the rain is nuts. I’ve run in the rain and won in the rain, but I insist on being able to see.”

Yet even now Newman refuses to think about giving up on his racing. It means too much to him: “I don’t expect any miracles, but so long as I don’t embarrass myself, I’ll keep doing it. There’s a lot of crap out there, and it seems to me I get into more of it than most people. Maybe it’s because I’m doing too many things.

“But just get in the car and all of that runs out of your toes. There’s just such a sense of peace in there. When you’re hustling you don’t have time to think about anything else that’s going on. You don’t run down the straightaway saying, ‘Should we be in Iraq, or shouldn’t we be in Iraq?’ Or, ‘What about the new salad dressing? Is it light enough? Will it be just a fad?’

“Nothing takes the place of racing,” he concludes. “To enjoy the sensation of driving and racing, to really be able to see the effect of it in your mirrors, that extra 10 feet that you built up coming out of a particular corner — you know, that’s a kick in the ass!”

Mansell: upstaging Andretti

Back in 1993 and ’94 Newman-Haas was at the top of its game, much as it is today. The difference is that it had two particularly high-profile superstars who seriously disliked each other’s company.

Mario Andretti was in the last two years of his epic career. while Nigel Mansell had been brought in by Carl Haas to replace Michael Andretti, who was making an attempt at launching a Formula One career as Ayrton Senna’s team-mate at McLaren. After winning the 1992 world championship with Williams. Mansell was disaffected with both Williams and F1 and took up Haas’s offer to tackle CART’s then-thriving lndycar World Series.

Aboard Newman-Haas’s Lola-Ford Cosworths Mansell was the scourge of CART in 1993, winning five races and beating Penske team-mates Emerson Fittipaldi and a youthful Paul Tracy to the title. But in ’94 he went off the boil on his American adventure, failing to a win a race and finishing eighth in the championship after showing little interest in the season’s second half.

Meanwhile, Andretti scored his final victory at Phoenix in April at 53 years of age, and went on to retire in style, widely feted by all. In fact, in the last single-seater race of his career at Laguna Seca in October. Andretti was running ahead of Mansell when the former’s car expired.

Paul Newman recalls his team’s Mansell era with respect and good humours: “Nigel was an incredible driver. When he was happy and confident, and believed everyone around him was behind him, he could perform miracles.

“He was also one of the finest actors I’ve ever seen.

“I remember he was testing at Phoenix and had stumbled away from the car to the motorhome, saying all this going round in circles was too much. He was disoriented and dizzy, and said he needed to rest. Some cyclists were doing hot laps and comparing their times while he was resting in the motor home. He heard them and came out and said he could beat their times. He jumped on one of the bikes and raced around. Then he went back to the motor home to rest before doing some more laps in the race car. Quite a performance!

“Then there was the time he and Mario finished 1-2 in the Michigan 500 in 1993 and Nigel played faint on the top step of podium. He did a marvellous job of portraying the exhausted man. Mario stood there, just disgusted. That really pissed Mario off!”

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