Appreciating Paul Newman

by Gordon Kirby on 29th September 2008

Paul Newman passed away at the end of last week after a battle with cancer. Newman, 83, spent his last days at his home in rural western Connecticut. About a month ago he took his SCCA-spec Corvette up to Lime Rock, his local track, to enjoy some laps on a track where he scored many SCCA and club racing wins over the years.

A legendary actor in both movies and the stage, Newman was also renowned for his salad dressings and for his charitable work through his Hole in the Wall Gang foundation and camps. His acting career started in 1952, first on Broadway and on television in New York before beginning his legendary film career in 1954. Newman went on to act in more than 65 movies and become one of Hollywood’s most admired and respected actors. He also directed and worked on both sides of the camera with his wife of fifty years, Joanne Woodward.

Newman and Woodward preferred Connecticut to Hollywood, settling in an eighteenth century farmhouse on fifteen acres where they raised a son and two daughters. As Newman’s acting career skyrocketed he came across motor racing while filming the 1968 movie ‘Winning’. He met Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones and the Unser brothers and got the racing bug. Bob Bondurant taught Newman how to drive and in 1972, when he was 47, Newman started racing in a Lotus Elan, entering as PL Newman. He scored his first win later that year in an SCCA regional at Thompson, Connecticut and over the next six years Newman won five SCCA national championships driving C and D-Production Datsun sports cars for Bob Sharp’s team.

He also tackled Le Mans in 1979 (above), finishing an excellent second aboard a Porsche 935 turbo with Rolf Stommelen and car owner Dick Barbour. Back home, Newman continued to race regularly in the Trans-Am series. Through the eighties he ran more than sixty Trans-Am races, winning at Brainerd in 1982 and his home track Lime Rock in ‘86.

In 1978 Newman became a Can-Am team owner when he went into partnership with Bill Freeman. The team’s drivers included Keke Rosberg, Bobby Rahal, Al Unser Sr., Danny Sullivan, Teo Fabi and Elliott-Forbes-Robinson. But as the Can-Am series faltered Newman agreed to a new partnership with Carl Haas in 1983 to run an Indy car in the rapidly-growing CART series with Mario Andretti at the wheel. Andretti won the CART championship with Newman-Haas in 1984 and spent the final twelve years of his racing career with the team which has established itself as America’s second most successful open-wheel team behind only Penske Racing.

Newman/Haas went on to win seven more CART/Champ Car championships with Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Cristiano da Matta and Sebastien Bourdais while Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson this year scored the team’s 106th and 107th wins. Industrialist Mike Lanigan joined Newman/Haas as a third partner in 2007 so that the team is now known as Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing.

Meanwhile, Newman continued to race on an occasional basis through last year. He finished third in the 1995 Daytona 24 hours a few days after his 70th birthday, co-driving a Roush Mustang with Mark Martin, Tommy Kendall and Mike Brockman, and started the 24 hours again in 2004, sharing a Fabcar-Porsche with Bourdais, da Matta and Brockman.

But the most important aspect to Paul Newman was that he was a genuinely good man who said that his charitable work for ailing children was his greatest legacy. Newman was the opposite of the typical Hollywood star and over time became one of the most respected men the movie business has ever produced. He was, in fact, the cool character he often played on the silver screen, but Newman was also a very funny man with a keen wit who loved to play practical jokes on his pals.

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