Many have said if Newman had become a race driver at a young age he would have been a champion. He first found himself behind the wheel of a racecar while preparing for the 1969 movie "Winning," which co-starred his wife Joanne Woodward. He became hooked on driving, and would eventually become a winner in a variety of sports car categories (often entered as "PL Newman") and continued into his 70s - including becoming the oldest winning co-driver in the 24 Hours of Daytona at age 70. (He drove in the 24 Hours for the first time at age 54!)
Newman was co-owner of the Newman-Haas Indy car team, which won countless races and a series of titles with drivers such as Mario and Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell and most recently Sebastien Bourdais. He was known to refuse to sign autographs or to talk about acting or his movies, but would happily spend time 'bench racing' at the racetrack. In the heat of the CART/IRL split, he believed the George family were inflating attendance figures at Indy, and famously paid Indiana University students to literally count every seat at the massive Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
My favorite Newman story took place in the celebrity-packed hospitality area of the Long Beach Grand Prix in the late 1990s. The event - then in its prime - drew huge crowds, and it seemed all of humanity were massed between the hospitality area and the starting grid. Before walking through the teeming crowds, Newman quietly slipped into a neon vest stamped "WORKER," just like the ones worn by the track volunteers. I followed him on a leisurely stroll to the starting grid and not one spectator did a double take or gave a second glance to the movie star, allowing him to glide onto the grid without hassle. (I would have loved to have done the same with Dale Jr. at some tracks, but it's near impossible to cover an entire red BUD uniform with a neon vest...)
The Coolest of the Cool: After a call this afternoon with former boss Bill Kentling from my days at Heartland Park Topeka, he reminded me of another Newman-related anecdote. When the track was new, the Newman-Haas team booked test time at our facility to do straight-line speed tests (using what was then the longest drag strip run-off in the country). It was a big deal for the small capital city of Topeka, and it was a big deal for the track itself. We were looking for as much national coverage and credibility as possible, and having a CART team of such fame was instant attention and affirmation. What it also meant for the city was a high-alert of people on the look-out for Newman (though I doubt Paul ever attended a far-off test session with the team). For months after, the phones at the track would ring - with citizens, hotel or restaurant managers insisting Newman (and/or Tom Cruise, post-Days of Thunder) had been spotted in town... and why was the track trying to keep it a secret?! Despite the interest and hoopla, I don't believe Newman ever set foot at our track, but merely the chance of a star of such coooool, of such world status MIGHT be in town did wonders for our image with sponsors and townspeople.
More Paul Newman stories from Robin Miller.