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Brock Yates
October 07, 1974
Paul Newman and a cast of thousands—well, dozens—ride out to capture the records. Lights! Action! But no cameras, please
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October 07, 1974

Cool Hand Luke Meets Luigi

Paul Newman and a cast of thousands—well, dozens—ride out to capture the records. Lights! Action! But no cameras, please

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It is one of those basic Tuesday night bust-outs in Wendover. The crowd is clustered down at Bonnie and Brent's Hideaway on the other side of the Union Pacific tracks, between a trailer park and maybe 20 trillion square miles of the great dry Salt Lake of western Utah. The car-racer types are in town for another Bonneville Salt Flats record run and, by golly, ol' Brent is there, serving the weaving bodies at the bar, snapping open Coors cans like crazy. Yes, sir, cans are popping, feet are stomping, fat sirloins are crackling and flaming on the grill, Bo Diddley is yelling from somewhere inside the jukebox, and out in a dingy back room, pool balls are clicking.

But isn't that Paul Newman? The Paul Newman, bent over the table, lining up the 11-ball with those famous stainless-steel blue eyes, right here in Wendover? Of course it's Paul Newman, all-round thespian, medium-adequate pool player, Babe Ruth League chug-a-lug artist and not-too-shabby race driver right there in the back room of Bonnie and Brent's Hideaway. Newman is one of those racers who are going to jump into what the heavier prose stylists call a "blood red" Ferrari and shatter a batch of big-time international speed records on the world's fastest wasteland.

All this is a project of the North American Racing Team, a spin-off organization of Chinetti Motors, Ferrari's East Coast distributor. Luigi Chinetti Sr. won at Le Mans three times but has now turned over the competition end of the business to his son, Luigi Jr., known as "Coco" to his prop-jet-set friends. Because of his rapid, sideways-past-the-barn driving methods, Luigi Jr. was once uncharitably called "Loco Coco" by one or two of his competitors. It is Coco, a youthful 32-year-old, who has organized the NART effort at Bonneville. Using a pair of team cars, a 365GTB Daytona grand touring coupe and an aging, skateboard-high 512M prototype with several thousand miles in the racing wars, Coco hopes to set world and domestic records at distances from 10 kilometers to 5,000 miles and in time frames from one hour to 24 hours. Four pilots have been named: Chinetti, Newman, two-time world driving champion Graham Hill of Formula I fame and Milt Minter, a gentle, moon-faced man from Fresno who is one of the most underrated drivers in the country.

Going in, there is one nagging problem: whether or not the Ferraris will be fast enough to do the job. This possible deficiency is compounded by the team's rather relaxed, sometimes chaotic approach and its harried trio of European mechanics who have never seen an expanse of acreage larger than the Piazza San Marco in Venice.

Most of the speed records, ranging between 150 and 190 mph, are held by the late Ab Jenkins, a man whose exploits at Bonneville between 1933 and 1956 helped win him four years as mayor of Salt Lake City and get his famous "Mormon Meteor"—a finned, high-wheeled monster with a 750-hp aircraft engine—enshrined in the Utah state capitol. For years those records, some going back to 1936, have proved to be as indestructible as the Mormon faith that helped create them.

Many top race drivers have nibbled unsuccessfully at Ab's clockings, but now one optimistic observer of this newest attack has speculated that the two Ferraris just might have an edge in the land of the Latter-day Saints. "After all," he says brightly, "the angel who revealed the golden tablets to Mormon prophet Joseph Smith was named Moroni. Now, assuming that he was Italian...."

Forget it. If there is any evidence of divine intervention, it is in behalf of Ab, not Coco. The cars are not happy sliding around the flat, 10-mile rectangular course laid out by the United States Auto Club. The 512M, the faster of the two Ferraris, is having trouble averaging 190 mph for a single lap, whereas back in 1950 Jenkins' Mormon Meteor chugged around Bonneville at that speed for a full hour. The Ferraris get cranky, choosing to run on a variety of cylinders between nine and 11, but not their full allotment of 12. Coco blows a rear tire on the 512M, shredding the bodywork and tearing up some of the engine's vital plumbing. A giant spike found on the course is believed to have been the culprit, causing Graham Hill to observe, in his best Mayfair drollery, that "no doubt it was left behind by the early settlers." (Actually it is a surveyor spike used in laying out the track.) But, most important, the star is displeased.

Newman, whose love of racing shows no trace of standard Hollywood ego-tripping, has come to Bonneville believing this will be a low-key gathering of a few kindred car nuts, a couple of days of highspeed relaxation in the middle of nowhere. Imagine his surprise when he is met by a full CBS television film crew, complete with a big-time director in a safari jacket with 14 pockets, a sound man and a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter. Now imagine CBS' surprise when Newman tells its film crew that it is welcome to train its Eclairs and Arriflexes and Nagra mikes on everything between Salt Lake City and Ely, Nevada—just as long as he doesn't appear on one frame of film.

Switchboards light up at network headquarters. Trouble in Utah. There is a horrible misunderstanding, says Luigi Chinetti, whose NART team has sold the television rights to CBS, obviously based on Newman's participation. We have this contract, says CBS....

Not quite, says Newman. His agreement gives certain authorization for press coverage, but he feels it falls far short of providing for his featured appearance in a half-hour network television show. Money is not the issue. Despite the fact that it would take numbers equaling the gross national product of Costa Rica to hire this same Paul Newman for 30 minutes of network television, the problem is image, not dollars.

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