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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Remembering one of America's finest men

by Gordon Kirby
The guy was as solid and honest as they come. Paul Newman was both a great actor and philanthropist and was also one of the most laid-back yet fiercely motivated men I've ever met. Newman possessed an artist's temperament and a racer's soul, and will go down in history as a totally straight, fine man who always did the right thing for his family, friends and employees as well as the many children he helped around the world through his Hole in the Wall camps. Over the last thirty years Newman established ten Hole in the Wall camps--eight in the United States, one in Europe and one in Africa--and in many ways philanthropy became the defining element of his life.

For Hollywood's elite--from whom Newman lived far apart with his family in an eighteen century farmhouse in Connecticut--he was the man they wanted to be. To the world he was a good guy, an uncommonly handsome movie star who played a wide range of cool customers and also directed and acted on the stage with considerable success. Newman made 65 movies, many of them classics, and also enjoyed an out-of-the-limelight marriage to Joanne Woodward over the last fifty years of his life.

Newman stumbled on motor racing when he starred in the 1968 movie 'Winning'. He met Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones and the Unser brothers and was taught the fundamentals of racing by Bob Bondurant. Under Bondurant's instruction Newman drove a series of cars from a Formula Vee to a Can-Am car and four years later, at 47, he started a mid-life vocation as an amateur racer.

Driving a Lotus Elan in his rookie year, 1972, Newman was able to run up front right away and scored his first win that year in an SCCA regional at Thompson, Connecticut. Over the next six years, driving a series of C and D-Production Datsun sports cars for Bob Sharp's team, Newman won five SCCA national titles and was particularly proud of his 1979 SCCA C-Production championship win at Road Atlanta.

"There were a lot of Nissan factory teams who got a lot of help in those days," he recalled a few years ago. "And boy, I was hooked up that day! I pretty much ran away with it."

Newman tackled the Le Mans 24 hours in 1979 and finished an excellent second, co-driving a Porsche 935 turbo with Rolf Stommelen and car owner 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," he said. "Barbour remembers different. He says I held up my end. I'm not trying to be modest here. I'm really just trying to be realistic."

Back home, Newman continued to race regularly in the Trans-Am. He ran more than sixty SCCA Trans-Am races during the 'eighties and won a couple of Trans-Ams, one at Brainerd in 1982, and another at his home track Lime Rock four years later.

In the heyday of his racing career, between 1978-'81, Newman also ran his own Can-Am team in partnership with Bill Freeman. Among Newman's drivers during those days were Keke Rosberg, Bobby Rahal, Al Unser Sr, Danny Sullivan, Teo Fabi and Elliott Forbes-Robinson. The team was one of Carl Haas's primary rivals in the Can-Am, but at the end of 1981 both Newman and Haas pulled their teams out of the dying series. Less than a year later Haas proposed to Newman that they become partners in a new CART Indy car team. Newman wasn't very interested until Haas told him that Mario Andretti was available to drive for them.

"Carl had been supplying me with cars for the Can-Am," Newman recalled. "They were always late and they were always overweight and we didn't have what I would call a dynamite relationship. When I left the Can-Am, I really was going to get out of racing.

"Then Carl called and said, 'How would you like to go Indy car racing?' And smoke started coming out of my ears. I said, 'Are you nuts! I shouldn't even be listening to this conversation.' Then he said, 'What if I could get Mario Andretti to drive?' And I said, 'Where would you like to meet?'."

Andretti won two races for Newman/Haas Racing in the team's first year, then won the 1984 CART championship. The team went on to win seven more championships (with Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Cristiano da Matta and Sebastien Bourdais) and has achieved the remarkable record of winning at least one race in twenty-five of the twenty-six seasons it has raced (1994 was the only year devoid of victories).

Last year crane mogul Mike Lanigan joined Newman and Haas as a third partner and this year Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson scored Newman/Haas/Lanigan's 106th and 107th wins. They were the only 'transition' team to win a race in this year's unified IRL IndyCar series.

Into the nineties Newman got behind the wheel much less, although he still ran the odd race amid his busy life of race team-owning, acting, salad dressing manufacturing, plus his considerable philanthropical work. In 1995, a few days after his 70th birthday, Newman co-drove a Roush Mustang in the Daytona 24 hours with old friend Mike Brockman, TransAm 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.

A few years ago Newman and old buddy Mike Brockman put together their own operation to run a Riley & Scott Trans-Am-spec Corvette for Newman and a similar Camaro for Brockman. They ran the cars out of a small shop in back of Brockman's Volvo dealership in southwestern Connecticut. In 2003 Newman finished fifth in the rain in a Trans-Am race at Lime Rock and the following week he won an SCCA national at the track in similar conditions.

"I finished fifth in the rain in the Trans-Am race, and that ain't bad for an old guy," he remarked. "Then there was a national race the next weekend and it was pouring again and I lapped the whole field. I knew where all the puddles were and knew right where to go."

Newman continued to race occasionally through last year and often said racing was the only sport he found that he could do well and gracefully.

"I've done a lot of sports and I've done 'em all badly," he said. "But I liked racing and I wanted to work on it more than ski-skiing, or boxing, or tennis, or skating, or any of the things that I enjoyed.

"There were a couple of years there where I was OK. Nothing flashy or spectacular, but it was the first time I've ever been graceful doing something. I have no physical grace, and this was the first time I was able to find something where I had some smoothness, some grace in a physical sense. I get my feet crossed-up playing tennis and ski-skiing, and I'm much too light to be a football player."

Just three years ago, before his 80th birthday, Newman told me he refused to think about giving up racing.

"I don't expect any miracles, but so long as I don't embarrass myself I'll keep doing it," he remarked. "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 quietly added. "To enjoy the sensation of driving and racing, and to really be able to see the effect of it in your mirrors, that extra ten feet you built up coming out of a particular corner. You know, that's a kick in the ass!"

Newman took as much pleasure from watching a great driver in action as he did from doing the job well himself. He recalled watching the cars go through the old Hyatt garage chicane complex at Long Beach in the early nineties when Mario Andretti and Al Unser Jr. dominated the victory podium at the California street race.

"I remember watching Al Unser Jr. and Mario and the top guys coming through there with such incredible car control. Jesus! It was awesome to watch the good guys through there. It's the same thing that makes a great skier. There's something that they know that we normal human beings don't know. When they are right on the limit, they're beautiful to watch."

Last year I was asked to write a story about Newman for a British newspaper and he insisted on addressing the environmental impact of motor racing.

"People say, how can you support eating up all that gasoline?" he commented. "What I say is the Super Bowl uses about the same amount of gasoline as the Daytona 500. Any major sporting event consumes a huge amount of gasoline in the cars and vehicles of all the spectators and professional people involved in those events. The gasoline used on the racetrack is a drop in the bucket.

"There's also been a huge amount of research and development gained from racing over the years about making better fuels and improving the efficiency of engines and the safety of the cars. A lot of good things have come out of all this for the road car of today and I'm sure racing will continue to contribute to developing new technologies."

Despite his many accomplishments on the silver screen and in motor racing Newman always felt his charitable work for ailing children was his greatest legacy. The final paragraph of Newman's obituary in the New York Times said it all.

"We are such spendthrifts with our lives," Newman once told a reporter. "The trick of living is to slip on and off the planet with the least fuss you can muster. I'm not running for sainthood. I just happen to think that in life we need to be a little like the farmer who puts back into the soil what he takes out."

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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