Paul Newman's motorsport legacy revisited

The Hollywood icon-cum-racing driver was still racing Ford Mustangs in anger at 70.

Paul Newman

The Hollywood icon-cum-racing driver was still racing Ford Mustangs in anger at 70.

First published in the July 1995 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia's best car mag since 1953.

The eyes are still blue, the hands still cool, and Paul Newman is winning at Daytona in a 300 km/h Mustang-on his 70th birthday.

The eyes, ocean blue, are as piercing as laser beams. Even behind the racing facials, there's no mistaking their owner. Paul Newman is doing what he loves best – driving a race car. At age 70.

The date is February 4, 1995, and he's at the Daytona International Speedway, wrestling with a 485 kW Ford Mustang. Not in some private, closed-track session or some tame, bumper-car celebrity event. No, he's racing for real. Charging hard in the Daytona 24-hour classic against works Ferraris and Kremer Porsches. Up against drivers such as Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson. And leading his class.

Paul Newman's Motorsport Legacy Revisited Victor, Mature - July 1995
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"Forget that he's Paul Newman. For any 70-year-old guy to come here and compete at a world-class level, against these kind of drivers, and hold his end up like this, is phenomenal," says Newman's 28-year-old team-mate Tommy Kendall.

“Most other 70-year-olds I know would expect you to give them a hand getting into a car, not watch them drive it at 300 km/h.”

But racing is in Newman's blood. It's part of his soul. He got hooked back in 1968 while preparing for the film Winning. At age 44,he signed up for Bob Bondurant's Phoenix race school – ostensibly to ready himself for the role – fell in love with the sport, started racing professionally three years later and has been winning ever since.

He has racked up more than 60 wins in his career, taken two major US national championships, finished second outright at Le Mans and driven everything from a Datsun 510 1.6 tin-top to a 560 kW Group 5 Porsche.

Paul -Newman -young -and -oldAnd now he's racing a Mustang, though it's no ordinary Mustang. Prepared by master race-car builder Jack Roush, it's powered by a carb-fed 6.0 litre Ford V8, producing 485 kW and 746 Nm of torque.

A monster of a car, it has nervous, flick-switch power steering and a tendency to switch ends if you're anything less than super-sensitive on the throttle. Definitely not what you need when you're travelling at more than three miles a minute.

Newman's other co-drivers are NASCAR stocker Mark Martin and close 'buddy and a one-time stunt driver Mike Brockman.

“This car holds your attention,” says Brockman. “On the Daytona banking we're doing around 300 km/h. The steering is too light, it's almost impossible to get comfortable and it oversteers when the fuel load gets light.”

Brockman and Newman hatched the Daytona plan together. Hollywood soap actor Craig T Nelson had already entered the 24-hour race with his Lexus-powered World Sports Car racer. Nelson offered Brockman a test drive just before Christmas and suggested he bring Newman along for the ride.

“So we went to Daytona to drive the car, and actually went pretty quick in it, so Craig T invited us to run in the 24 hours. On the flight home, Paul kept telling me how he'd love to do the race. He couldn't do it in an open car because if Joanne (Woodward, Newman's wife) got wind of him racing a convertible, as he calls them, she'd kill him! I said, 'Don't worry, there are plenty of other options'.”

Newman pondered on these options over Christmas. Three days into the New Year, he called Jack Roush and asked whether a winning team could be put together in time for the race, just 34 days away. Roush told Newman it could be done.

As things turned out, Newman sat in the finished car for the first time just two days before race day at a shakedown session in Savannah, Georgia. He had time for just 20 laps and a quick tour of the switchgear. Then the car was taken to Daytona.

Sitting on the Daytona grid, there's no mistaking who is the driving force behind the Roush Mustang. The car's number – 70 – marks the birthday of its star driver, the Nobody's Fool logos on the flanks advertise Newman's latest film (Paramount having provided the bulk of the sponsorship).

Roush is keen for Newman to start the race, but he declines. It's left to the young hotshoe, Kendall, to put some early miles under the Mustang's tyres. Two-and-a-half hours later, it's Newman's tum. The light is fading. It's the twilight shift. And he has done only enough laps to find out which way the turns go.

“Paul started his drive during the toughest time,” says Kendall. “It's never as tricky as when the sun is going down. Coming off the Turn Four banking, you can't see the track, it's just glare, and that's the fastest part of the track. You're doing around 190mph.”

Newman takes it in his stride. The team's race-plan calls for 1min 58 sec laps, and he's bang-on, straight away, like clockwork. Keeps right on the pace, stays out of trouble. Lap after lap, he powers the brutish Mustang round, brisk but consistent. He drives for two hours, then sleeps.

Porsche -Paul -NewmanHe's back in the car at seven the next morning. Newman's really in the groove now. The only imperfection comes when he skims the barrier high on the banking – a 190 mph graze. No damage, just a touch of battle-scarring to the paintwork.

The excitement builds 50 minutes before the end. It looks like the Mustang is going to win the GTS class and finish third overall. Martin is in the hot seat, and things are going just fine. Half an hour passes without drama.

Martin brings the Mustang in for its final pit stop. Twenty minutes to the flag. The last laps belong to Newman. He squeezes in through the open window, tightens the harness and powers the big Ford back onto the track. There's uproar in the Roush pits when Newman takes the chequered flag. As he steers the car into the victory lane, the crowd starts singing Happy Birthday.

“I'm pretty sure Paul was glad he was wearing his sunglasses when they started that,” says Brockman. Jack Roush finds it difficult to express his admiration for Newman.

“He's that prototype for all us middle-aged guys who want to keep doing the things we want to do forever. He's living the impossible dream. He's ... ageless.”

Also watching is one-time F1 driver Derek Daly: “I was in the Roush pits as Newman climbed aboard to drive to victory, and I had goose-pimples all over. Here was the oldest man ever to win at Daytona. If I even get close to emulating what he has done here today when I'm 70, I'll be absolutely delighted.”

A fortnight later, at the Indy car series opener in Miami, I get to talk to him. Newman-Haas is without Nigel Mansell for the first time in two years, his place taken by Michael Andretti. Newman doesn't like interviews. Not that he dislikes talking to the media, he just dislikes talking about himself.

And he hates being treated as a movie star. He's hard on his fans, too. He stopped giving autographs years ago after a man accosted him, pen and paper in hand, while he was taking a leak at Sardi's, the posh LA restaurant. The warm, happy-snap photo-opportunities with fans also came to an abrupt halt after a palpitating woman thrust her pet poodle into his hands and demanded Newman pose for a picture. "Enough, enough," he said at the time.

I don't recognise him at first. He's in the Newman-Haas pit, chatting to the crew. Faded jeans, scruffy tennis shoes, old sweat-shirt, tufts of thinning white hair sprouting out at each side of his baseball cap.

He's taller than I'd imagined. Wiry-thin, but muscular. It's only when he smiles that he becomes unmistakably Newman. The same wide-open smile of Cool Hand Luke or Butch Cassidy. Warm, inviting, magical.

I've been warned that he's a tough interviewee. Prone to long, distant blue stares and silences you could grow old in. And when the answer comes, it's often monosyllabic, usually unfinished. As one of the team's sponsors quips: “Ask him the time and he needs to call in the scriptwriters.”

The meeting is unscheduled. “Paul Newman doesn't come to race meetings to do interviews,” says the team's ferocious PR man. Yet when I put my hand on Newman's shoulder, he looks round and flashes me one of those killer smiles. Can we talk? No problem.

Paul -Newman -racing -car -driver -headSo, at 70, how did he rank winning at Daytona with his other racing achievements? He pauses. Looks down to the ground. Pushes his baseball cap to the back of his head. Half a minutes goes by.

Finally he answers. Slowly. “It's got to be close to the top. Or the closest thing I can think of.”

How did Daytona compare with Le Mans?

Again, a distant stare, a long pause. “Le Mans was great for me, but winning is winning and I'll take that any time.”

What was the most exciting part of the Daytona race?

Again, a long, long pause: “I reckon the best part was not hitting anything or anybody.”

There's that big smile again. It's as if he uses the long pauses to try to con-jure up some off-beat one-liner.

I press on. So, when he went to Jack Roush with the idea of doing Daytona, did he honestly think he’d end up winning?

“No, but Jack said if we did win, would he get a part in my next film? I'm kidding. Bad joke.”

Away from the public glare, Newman's humour and practical joking are legendary. There was the time he had Robert Redford's Porsche crushed and the metal block wrapped in a bow and left in the hallway of Redford’s house. And the time he dynamited Robert Altman's golf cart. He once paid a studio hand to take a cutting torch to director George Roy Hill’s new sports car, just to see his expression.

He doesn't really want to talk about his own road cars. But Mike Brockman tells me he wouldn't be seen dead driving some ego-boosting Ferrari or Roller.

“He drives a Volvo Estate. A 960. Grey with dull grey wheels. It looks bone stock ... apart from the 300hp Buick GNC turbo motor under the hood. Boy, is it quick!

“We're trying to figure out what the next one will be. He's thinking about another Volvo. But this time with a Ford modular V8. The 4.6, supercharged with a nice six-speeder.”

I suggest to Newman that after his success at Daytona, per-haps he should be driving in the Miami Indycar opener, too.

“Are you kidding? The first lap I'd put it in the drink.”

But he admits that he has tried out his race cars from time to time. “Yeah, I've driven them. But I was way over my head. To drive those cars fast, to drive them on the edge, takes a whole different kind of skill.”

Had he not become an actor, would he have liked to have been profession-al racing driver?

Again, the distant stare.

“I think I got into racing at exactly the right time. I work at a job that I have a lot of fun at. This is just an extraordinary bonus that I came upon late in life. And I've had a wonderful time pursuing it.

"I love racing, because it's very different from Hollywood. It's the competition I enjoy. In acting it's hard to say that someone is better than someone else. But racing is much more clear-cut."

Could he have become a major-league driver, perhaps an Indycar champ, had he started earlier?

“No way. I don't think I could have been quick enough to be really competitive. Even if I had started at 18.”

Veteran racer and close friend Sam Posey thinks differently.

“The reason I think he could have been great is his commitment. And I can only assume that if he brought the same level of commitment to racing as he brought to acting, you would have seen a similar kind of career. He's so consistent. He reads the car so well and sets it up well, too. That and his concentration.

“Actors, particularly actors with stage experience, can concentrate with-out an extraneous thought for long periods of time. That's the key to racing, too. That's why he became so good so quickly.”

So when does Newman next plan to get into a racing car? Perhaps Daytona '96? At age 71?

“I don't think so. They say you should leave the party when it's at its best, so I don't think I'll go back. Now is a good time to leave. A very comfortable time for me to get out.”

He pauses again. Looks down at his feet. Nods his head gently, then breaks into a big smile. There they are again, those big, beaming blue eyes.

"You know, I've been giving serious thought to taking up football ... “

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