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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Paul Newman, 1925-2008

Paul Newman's profession was acting, but his passion was racing. He has died at age 83 after a battle with lung cancer that had been well-documented in many of the tabloids these past two years, but he faced his illness the same way he lived his life: quietly, and with dignity.

Arguably the most talented of the celebrities-turned-race drivers — and inarguably the most successful — Newman raced sports cars at Daytona, Le Mans and Sebring. He began racing rather late in life because, he said, "It's the first thing that I ever found I had any grace in. I'm not a very graceful person."

Newman said his favorite sound was "a V-8 engine,"

He Lost It at the Movies
Paul Newman first got serious about motorsports in 1968 while making Winning (1969), which revolved around the 1968 Indianapolis 500, but he wasn't really able to begin racing until four years later. He picked up his basic skills in a Lotus Elan, purchased an ex-Bob Sharp Datsun 510, then finally took an ex-Group 44 Triumph TR-6 to a hard-fought class championship in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) run-offs at Road Atlanta in 1976. SCCA race fans at his home track of Lime Rock Park began to wear T-shirts with the slogan, "Paul Newman Has Skinny Legs."

Newman said, "I was never a great driver — I started racing when I was 47 years old — but I got to be pretty good. I was a pretty good driver for about five years."

Newman moved on to a Bob Sharp-prepared Datsun 280ZX Turbo in 1977. After winning his first SCCA national championship for Sharp in 1979, Newman said, "This is better than the Oscars." He reportedly refused payment and instead suggested that his compensation should be product from the car's primary sponsor -- Budweiser. Newman went on to become No. 1 driver for Datsun's effort in the professional SCCA Trans-Am racing series.

Racing as a Team
But it is likely in his role as team owner that Newman had his largest impact on racing. He first sponsored a car in the 1967 Can-Am, the Ford-powered, Holman Moody-built Honker II. It was not a good racecar, and driver Mario Andretti commented, "Why don't you put my name on the nose and let Newman drive it."

A decade later, Newman-Freeman Racing fielded one of the era's re-bodied Lolas in the 1979 Can-Am championship with Budweiser sponsorship. Newman subsequently also became a partner in Bob Sharp's sports-car team. In 1983 he partnered with Can-Am rival Carl Haas in the CART Indycar series to field a car for Mario Andretti. Michael Andretti joined the team in 1989.

Newman-Haas won eight championships and 107 races in Indycar racing. After the notorious fracture in open-wheel racing between CART and the IRL in 1996, Newman refused to participate in IRL racing or attend the Indianapolis 500, but he relented after the things were resolved this year. In 2007, Newman and Haas also took on Mike Lanigan as a partner in the team, which won two events in the IRL series this year.

An Unlikely Profession
Born Paul Leonard Newman on January 26, 1925, in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Newman would inherit his father's sporting goods store. But after serving in the U.S. Navy Air Corps in World War II, Newman found the business boring. He sold his interest to his brother and enrolled in college as a drama major. "I wasn't driven to acting by an inner compulsion," he once said. "I was running away from the sporting goods business."

He worked on radio, appeared on Broadway, and in 1954, made his motion picture debut in a film called The Silver Chalice, a movie so grim that he subsequently apologized for it by placing an ad in a trade publication.

After his second film, Somebody Up There Likes Me, playing boxer Rocky Graziano in a part originally intended for James Dean, Newman had no more apologies to make. His long list of hits includes Hud, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cool Hand Luke, The Hustler, The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Hudsucker Proxyand The Verdict. He won an Oscar for The Color of Money. Between 1963 and 1986, Newman was one of the top 10 moneymaking movie stars for 14 years. He formally retired from acting in May 2007.

Among the last of Newman's 60-odd movie roles was as the voice of "Doc Hudson," a 1951 Hudson Hornet in the Pixar-animated, NASCAR-inspired hit, Cars (2006). "I did it mostly because I knew it would be good," he said. "That it was about racing was just a bonus."

A Racing Resumé
Newman developed his skills as a sports car driver in SCCA racing, and made a point of paying his dues. He followed his first SCCA national title in 1976 in the D-Production category with a C-Production class championship in 1979. He was GT-1 champion in both 1985 and 1986.

Newman began his entry into top-class professional racing with a 5th-place finish in the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1977 with a Ferrari Daytona. After experience in the Trans-Am, he co-drove a Porsche 935 with Dick Barbour to 2nd place at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He scored his first professional victory at a Trans-Am race in 1982 at Brainerd, Minnesota, with his Sharp-prepared Datsun Z-car. His second career Trans-Am win came in 1986 with a Corvette at his "home" track at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut.

Perhaps Newman's highest-profile race victory came at the 1995 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, where he won the GTS class at the age of 70 while co-driving a Roush Racing-prepared Mustang. In 1999, he tested a Richard Childress-owned Winston Cup stock car at Daytona at over 184 mph. He raced in the 2000 and 2001 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, and raced in the SCCA's GT-1 class in 2002 and 2003. In '03, for the first time in nine years, he competed in the SCCA's Trans Am Series, and finished 5th at Lime Rock. In 2004 he was back for the 24 Hours of Daytona, and that November, he joined Pikes Peak Hill Climb Winners Rod Millen and Jeff Zwart in a Team Centrix entry of the Baja Challenge class for the Tecate SCORE Baja 1000, finishing 4th.

Back at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2005 racing season, Newman co-drove a Crawford-Ford at age 80. But perhaps his most publicized race in 2005 was his win over Tonight Show host Jay Leno after the two competed in a go-kart race backstage on Leno's set. He won again when he returned to the show in 2006.

Climbing the Podium
Newman's appearances at races grew more and more infrequent after 2006, and he looked undeniably frail last May when he showed up in Indianapolis for the Indy 500 festivities. He was there to support his drivers, Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson, as they competed in the first Indy 500 since Champ Car merged with the Indy Racing League.

He saw both Rahal and Wilson score wins in 2008 in the Indy Racing League, the only drivers from the defunct Champ Car series to beat the IRL regulars. "This is the most satisfying win of my career," Wilson said after his September win at the Detroit Grand Prix. "This one means a lot. This one is for you, Paul."

Aside from racing, Newman was also interested in cars in general, but unlike some celebrities, he did not have an enormous collection of vintage automobiles. He was more famous for his Volvo station wagons powered by V8 engines, some of them supercharged. Newman also inadvertently popularized Rolex watches after wearing a Daytona model on-screen in Winning, and a Daytona with a complex dial is still known as a Paul Newman model by Rolex insiders.

Racing to the Flag
In August, Newman turned up at Lime Rock Park to take some laps in his Chevrolet Corvette GT-1 car. Though Internet rumors suggested the track was closed down for the aging driver, it wasn't. Track personnel just worked him into the schedule, much as they had for decades when he would call and ask for a little track time.

Still, those in attendance knew it could be his last time around, and likely Newman knew it, too. "I will continue to get behind the wheel of a racing car as long as I am able," he said several years ago. "But that could all end tomorrow."

This was Paul Newman: "You can't be as old as I am without waking up with a surprised look on your face every morning. 'Holy Christ, what do you know — I'm still around!' It's absolutely amazing that I survived all the booze and smoking, and the cars, and the career.