Newman's Own: An Actor Embraces Pro Racing

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Among the sports figures who made it on the big screen in Hollywood, film icon Paul Newman stands on his own as an accomplished actor who was also a successful race car driver.

Sportsmen Johnny Weissmuller (swimming), Chuck Norris (martial arts) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (body building) parlayed their athletic careers to movies but Newman went the other way, building a luminous reputation on stage and in film before ever trying his hand at racing.

In a 1971 documentary that Newman hosted, ‘Once Upon A Wheel’, he likened the race track to a “theater that has its audience, its cast, its drama, comedy, and sometimes its tragedy…”

The legendary star wasn’t the only media celebrity who relished high performance road thrills. Other actors who raced cars included James Dean, Steve McQueen, Patrick Dempsey, Frankie Muniz, Tim Allen, and Jason Priestly.

But the eight-time Academy Award nominee wasn’t the typical weekend warrior. He consumed himself in professional competitions and what’s more, he did it all in the latter half of his life beginning in his 40’s.

Newman caught the bug for motor pursuit while filming the 1969 movie ‘Winning’. He played a racer who aspires to win the Indianapolis 500 and as part of his training for the part, he studied under Formula One driver, Bob Bondurant.

Bondurant had just opened his driving school and Newman and co-star Robert Wagner were among his first students. Today, the Bondurant Racing School is the largest purpose-built driving school in the world.

Already a household name for his roles in ‘The Hustler’ (1961), ‘Hud’ (1963), ‘Cool Hand Luke’ (1967) and other cinematic productions, the blue-eyed screen renegade would embrace a new passion. Commenting on being a race car driver, he said it was “the first thing that I ever found I had any grace in”.

In parallel with his prolific years in film, Newman put in one of the longest racing careers on record. To avoid the inevitable publicity from Hollywood, he registered under the name of ‘P.L Newman, Lime Rock, Conn’ and started racing in SCCA (Sports Club Car of America) events.

His debut came in 1972, driving a Lotus Elan at an SCCA ProSeries sports car race at Thompson International Speedway in Connecticut. The northeast state was also his home, which he and his long-time wife, Joanne Woodward, enjoyed as a sanctuary from the peering eyes and cameras of Southern California.

In the years to come, Newman would win four national championships as a frequent competitor in SCCA runs, driving mostly Datsuns and Nissans for the Bob Sharp Racing Team. He started appearing in advertisements for Nissan and Budweiser, not as an actor but as a racing champion.

A regular at the track, he enjoyed chatting up conversations about man and machine, but strictly avoided discussing his life in Hollywood.

Newman also got into management, co-founding in 1983 Newman/Haas Racing, which went on to win 8 Drivers’ Championships and 107 race victories in the CART and IndyCar series.

Despite their elite status, the team could never clinch the Indianapolis 500. Their best was second place with Mario Andretti (1985) and later his son, Michael Andretti (1991).

Newman the actor reached his pinnacle with an Academy Award in ‘The Color of Money’ (1986). Newman the racer posted his best performance at the 1979 LeMans, driving a Porsche 935 with Dick Barbour and Rolf Stommelen. The trio placed second in the prestigious 300-lap grand prix endurance chase.

Sixteen years later, at the age of 70, Newman became the oldest driver to be part of a winning team in a major sanctioned race. He emerged victorious co-driving a Mustang in the GTS Class at the 1995 24 Hours of Daytona.

A decade on he was still at it, taking first place on a rainy track at Lime Rock and driving a “brutish Corvette” that prominently displayed the number of his age, 81.

Newman’s last professional race was the 2007 SCCA GT-1 pursuit at Watkins Glen International. He managed a fourth-place finish as a fatigued 82-year old, to which he remarked afterwards “I wish I was 81 again”.

Paul Newman, renaissance man in the studio and on the track, died a year later at the age of 83.

Other articles enjoyed:  Stock Car Racing: Made In America, America's Legacy At Formula One, Testing Man & Machine: The Dakar Rally  

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