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Sam Posey
August 25, 1980
Paul Newman risked not only his celebrated film career but also his neck when he decided to become a first-rate racing driver.
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August 25, 1980

The Perils Of Paul

Paul Newman risked not only his celebrated film career but also his neck when he decided to become a first-rate racing driver.

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The biggest influence on Newman's early career was Bob Sharp, a driver who owns a Datsun dealership in Wilton, Conn., not far from Paul's home in Westport. It was Sharp's team that prepared Newman's first racing car, the 510.

"It all started when Paul showed up at the dealership one day," Sharp says. "He had a Corvette, and he asked me to go with him to the track and show him how to drive it." But most cars intended for road use, even Corvettes, are pretty helpless on a racetrack. The tires fold under, the brakes get hot and quit after three or four laps, and the engine overheats. It didn't take Paul very long to realize that he wanted a car he could race.

Sharp's cars were consistent winners in Sports Car Club of America events. Datsun paid a good part of Sharp's racing bills, and his giant trailer rig and elaborately painted cars were the center of attention wherever he went. Mostly he campaigned in the Northeast at tracks like Lime Rock, Bridgehampton and Watkins Glen. Once a year he went to the SCCA's national championships at Road Atlanta in Georgia, which are a sort of Indianapolis for amateur sports-car racing. All told, he won six national championships.

Not surprisingly, Sharp aspired to more advanced forms of racing. The bottleneck, as is usual in racing, was money. Much of Sharp's budget came via Datsun's racing department. With Newman as part of his team, Sharp stood a chance of unlocking the door to Datsun's enormous public-relations and advertising budgets. It was a chance to deliver Butch Cassidy himself right into Datsun's lap, gift-wrapped in one of Sharp's own red, white and blue cars.

Newman would have none of it. "He wanted to avoid any suggestion that his racing was a publicity stunt," Sharp says. "He told me he would lease a car and pay us to maintain it, but he didn't want to be considered part of the team, and he wouldn't endorse any of my sponsors." For Sharp, a brilliant businessman who can see moneymaking opportunities in almost anything, it was the beginning of an always tantalizing and occasionally frustrating relationship.

Newman drove the sedan for a year, then missed a season while he was making The Towering Inferno. Under the terms of his movie contract, he was allowed to take weekends off for racing, but the demands of the film left little time for cars. Newman decided that in the future he would accept only roles in movies being made during the winter, racing's off-season. This was no small decision. It meant that moviemaking, which for most of his working life had been the primary source of his income and his worldwide celebrity, was now on an equal footing with a sport that earned him no money and up to that point had given him little indication that he would ever be successful at it. But he had been making movies for nearly 20 years; in a sense, he had done it all and was burned out, at least temporarily. He may even have sensed subconsciously that a fresh challenge was the only way to keep his creative juices flowing.

Oddly, there were skills that he had developed as an actor that had a definite carry-over into racing. One was a precise sense of timing. Even more important, though, was an ability to concentrate, unwaveringly and for extended periods of time. Stirling Moss used to say that the last thing he had learned as a driver was concentration; for Newman it was the first.

I've seen him do public-service announcements for charities at the track. Up until the moment they wanted to shoot he would be joking around, not paying attention. And then, bang, he would just hit a button somewhere and his voice would drop, his right eyelid would lower to produce the famous Newman "look," and he would deliver the lines as if he had lived his whole life just to do that one thing. It is the same when the time comes to drive his racing car. "I never really thought about concentration one way or another until someone showed me a take from a picture called The Outrage that we were making down in New Mexico," says Newman. "It was a long shot, 500 mm, a head shot, just me walking around saying the lines. Finally, when the take was over, the camera drew back, the film still running, and you could see that there had been guys driving trucks through there and pulling lamps and yelling, and what had looked like an isolated moment wasn't that at all. It really amazed me when I realized that I could block out stuff like that."

It was after The Towering Inferno that Paul's racing career really got under way. He practiced and practiced, and there was an orderliness to his approach that reminded me of someone carefully learning a foreign language by getting the grammar first, before the idioms. His biggest weakness, as I saw it, was that he had no background in cars. The entire character of a modern racing car can be changed in minutes by adjustments to the suspension, and a driver is expected to know how to adapt his car to a variety of different conditions. I would lean in the window and say I thought his car was handling a certain way, and he would say, "You gotta be kidding," and go on to describe an opposite characteristic.

Bit by bit, however, he became faster. And as he improved he became noticeably more relaxed around the pits. By the end of the year he had graduated from SCCA regional-level races to the more demanding national races, in which he was running against Sharp. Because Newman was so vague about technical matters, Sharp tested the car for him and set the suspension. Sharp was winning; Newman was coming home third or fourth. In Newman's steadily widening circle of racing friends there was speculation (incorrect, as it happens) that Sharp might not be putting quite as fine an edge on the adjustments to Newman's car as to his own. After all, how would he look if an aging movie star beat him?

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