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Racing is full of such innuendo, of course, and Newman's movie career had been good preparation for this, too. "There's probably as much bull in racing as there is in Hollywood, which is really saying something," he says. "The difference is that in racing no one really takes it seriously. To me, that makes racing fun, and for the most part, I enjoy the people in racing a lot more than the people in Hollywood."
Nevertheless, in 1976 Newman decided it was time for a change. Bob Tullius was a driver with a team very much like Sharp's, except that he ran Triumphs with backing from British Leyland. Tullius was willing to sell Newman the Triumph TR-6 with which his team had won the national championship the year before. Paul bought the car and formed his own team, underestimating the demands it would eventually make on his time. At first, however, things went smoothly. With Tullius supplying advice and technical know-how, Newman quickly adjusted to the faster car. And off the track Newman discovered that he could indulge his love of practical jokes with Tullius, something that wasn't possible with the intense Sharp. At one race Newman borrowed a garbage truck and had it repainted in the colors of Tullius' team. At another, he arranged for a 6'4" man to dress like a hooker and come on to Tullius at an elegant reception British Leyland was giving. Tullius responded in kind. He persuaded the Georgia State Patrol to send two cars into the pits at Road Atlanta, lights flashing, to "arrest" Newman at his motor home. Newman saw them coming and was sneaking out a door when he was apprehended. The charge: impersonating a racing driver.
It turned out to be a false arrest—a few days later Newman drove the TR-6 to his first national championship. The true importance of these runoff races among the season's top four point winners from the seven SCCA divisions is often hard to judge, even for insiders. There are about 22 separate classes to accommodate cars ranging from street sedans with little more than a roll bar bolted into them and a top speed of 90 mph, all the way up to pure racing machines with top speeds of around 210 mph. Some of the classes are so competitive that even a driver of, say, Mario Andretti's ability would have trouble winning. Newman's victory had come in one of the most hotly disputed classes, but he had won largely by default, inheriting the lead as faster cars fell out.
That was in October 1976. For 1977 Newman decided to run the TR-6 for another season. His team, however, was too disorganized to cope with a car that needed intensive care on a regular basis. Breakdown followed breakdown, and Newman began looking for something else. Bob Sharp had retired from racing in 1976 and had hired two drivers in his place. I was one of them. I drove Sharp's 240Z during the 1977 season in a professional series run by the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA). I took the ride because, after 10 years of driving highly dangerous Indianapolis and Grand Prix cars and seeing several of my close friends killed, I was happy to be in a car that had a roof and a strong roll cage. The other driver handled the SCCA amateur races, and Sharp decided to offer Newman the deal for 1978.
Newman accepted. "Winning the national championship, even if there had been a lot of luck involved, had given him some self-confidence as a driver," Sharp says, "and as a result he was willing to let us use him for promotions and certain types of publicity." The big question was: How good would his driving be? It was one thing for Bob to have scored a major publicity coup; now, in order not to have it backfire, the team had to win. Bob says, "I had a lot of top men working long hours for me as race mechanics, and there was no way I could keep them if we didn't win."
Newman was to campaign two cars, a 160-mph Datsun 280Z and a slower, sedan-bodied 200SX. His first drive in the cars came at a preseason test session on a chilly spring day at Lime Rock. I was there to test the car I would run in the IMSA series, and Gene Crowe, the crew chief, had asked me to take a few laps in Paul's cars. Newman still didn't know much about the cars, and the idea was for me to identify aspects in their handling that Paul would like, and for Gene to adjust the cars accordingly.
As Paul and I changed into our driving suits I noticed that he looked especially thin and fit. I asked him if he did any exercise. "I'm running three miles a day and I take a sauna every morning," he said. I said I guessed the sauna was probably a handy way of sweating off the six-packs he liked so much. Newman just grinned. Eyesight is critical in racing and Blue Eyes said his were still 20/20. He's lying about his age, I thought to myself: this man isn't 53, he's 35. But he was also plainly apprehensive.
Driving a racing car at Lime Rock, a track which has fast corners and a rough surface, is like taking a speedboat through a turn over choppy water. The toughest corner comes at the end of the straight, where the road bends into a fast 180-degree righthand sweeper, taken at about 95 mph, then tightens back on itself before a series of tight esses. The pavement has been frost-heaved into several small wave-like ridges that run diagonally across the track in the sweeper, and as it crosses these ridges a car is crushed down on its suspension one instant and is nearly airborne the next. Menacing trees and an earth bank flank a narrow runoff space to the outside. The turn is a sort of litmus test for drivers—they are either fast or slow, and any spectator can see it immediately. Paul was fast. What is more, he was fast in both cars long before he was really familiar with them, which is the indication of a driver with a good sense of balance, not to mention a large dose of exuberance. In the pits, the mood of the team was jubilant. We realized this was not just a warmed-up version of the slow and steady Newman of the early days; he had made a quantum leap in speed. As Gene Crowe studied the temperatures of the tires and evaluated the suspension settings, an encouraging pattern emerged: Newman liked the car best when it was sliding the most. He liked to hang it out. This was the sure sign of the true racer. It also meant that as his confidence grew he would go even faster.
Paul's lap times that day were quick enough to establish him as the favorite to win his classes in the SCCA's Northeast division, and he went on to get eight wins in 13 races. But despite the wins, he was still far from being a polished driver. He was often too cautious in the opening laps, losing places he sometimes couldn't make up, and he made mistakes when other drivers put pressure on him from behind. But this was just inexperience; he still wasn't used to being the man to beat.
The most astonishing feature of his driving, however, was his brilliance in rain. Rain driving requires a blend of delicate balance and raw courage, and Newman seemed to have plenty of both. In one race run in a downpour at Lime Rock, he had a collision with another car on the first lap, dropped almost to last, and then proceeded to drive with wild abandon. The track was at its worst, slippery and unpredictable, and at no time, even on the straights, did he appear fully in control. Twice he misjudged the braking point for the first turn and had to take to the escape road. But he kept coming, and at the end of the 20-minute race he barely missed winning. It was exciting stuff, and I could sense the crowd pulling for him purely as a driver for the first time.