Paul Newman, known and loved as a talented movie star, was also a seriously good racing driver.
He won four sports car Club of America National Championships, won the 24 hours of Daytona and, perhaps most famously, finished second in the 1979 Le Mans 24-hour race, sharing a Porsche 935 with Rolf Stommelen and Dick Barbour.
These were not short-stint celebrity drives, but the real deal. So good was Newman that his flair and passion for motor racing almost sidelined his acting career. The bloke who starred in films such as Hud, The Sting, Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid eventually forced movie producers to work around his racing schedule.
Read Howard Walker's classic story, as published in the July 1995 edition of Wheels.
Motoring journalist Howard Walker spent a weekend at the Daytona 24-hour race in February 1995, when Newman’s Ford Mustang won the GT class, and two weeks later at the Indycar series opener in Miami, to see Newman in action and to talk to the actor for a story that ran in the July 1995 issue of Wheels.
Newman became hooked on motor racing in 1968 while he was making Winning, a not-so-good racing movie that co-starred his wife, Joanne Woodward, and Robert Wagner. To better understand drivers and racing, Newman signed up for Bob Bondurant’s race school and learned enough to fall in love with the sport. It was, he said, “The first thing that I ever found I had any grace in”. Three years later he started racing professionally and only retired in 2008, just months before he died. A year earlier he took pole position in his last professional race at Watkins Glen.
Walker, who edited the UK’s Motor and What Car? before moving to Florida in 1991, reported that Newman hated talking about himself and hated being treated like a movie star. He was far happier just being a race driver. As one of his team’s sponsors told Walker: “Ask him the time and he needs to call in the scriptwriters.”
Walker persisted and asked Newman how Daytona compared with his other racing achievements and, especially, Le Mans. “He pauses. Looks down to the ground. Pushes his baseball cap to the back of his head. Half a minute goes by. Finally he answers. Slowly. ‘It’s got to be close to the top. Or the closest thing I can think of.
Le Mans was great for me, but winning is winning and I’ll take that any time.”
Antidote for adversity
In 2015 comedian Adam Carolla made a terrific documentary of Newman’s racing career: Winning: the racing life of Paul Newman. In it Carolla discovers that Newman personally sponsored Willy T. Ribbs, “a young black driver at a time when racist animosity for other drivers was palpable”. In 1991 Ribbs became the first black driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500. When Newman’s 28-year-old son Scott died after an accidental drug overdose in 1978, Carolla relates that all Newman wanted to do was get into a racing car “and think about nothing but the next corner”.