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The Northeast division events were just practice, however; the real test was to come in the national championships at Road Atlanta. There he would race drivers who had won as often as he had and who had cars as fast as his. Under the circumstances, he needed his best possible performance just to stay even. "Sure I get nervous before a race," he said on the day of the first race he was scheduled to drive. "Who doesn't? It begins about 15 minutes before the start, a minor case of the shakes while I'm sitting there in the car. It's not from fear of being hurt, it's that I'm afraid I won't give a good performance. I get the same feeling when I'm waiting backstage for the curtain to go up." But when the curtain went up in Atlanta he wasn't ready. The pressure made him overcautious, and he didn't begin to show his speed until he was too far behind to win. Although he worked his way up to third in one race and second in the other, Road Atlanta was a step backward.
When Atlanta was over, Paul went off to make another movie, The Day the World Ended (released as When Time Ran Out), scheduled in the off-season so as not to conflict with his racing. Racing, including the setbacks in the national championships, was giving him what money couldn't buy and what acting no longer always demanded: a sense of struggle. I remember one night after practice in Atlanta, Paul, Gene Crowe and I were sitting in the team's motor home. Gene wanted to know what gear ratio to install in one of the cars. Paul was gloomy because he wasn't sure, and he was tense because it was a critical decision. He was slumped down, his driving suit off; all he had on was his sweat-soaked fireproof underwear. A couple of beer cans sat on the little table. "I don't know," he said several times. "What do you think?" But there are some choices only the driver can make, and he knew it.
As an actor, Paul enjoyed being involved at several levels: directing, scouting locations, reworking scripts. Now he decided to broaden his involvement with racing and become a part owner of a team running in the Cam-Am series. "In the back of my mind was the idea that someday I'd get too long in the tooth to drive myself, and I knew I didn't want to relinquish my connection with racing," he says. "I always thought the Can-Am with, you know, those fabulous winged cars, was the most exotic racing anywhere. I liked the idea of being involved, of upgrading it if I could." Newman's team ran two hotly competitive cars with backing from Budweiser. His two drivers, Elliott Forbes-Robinson and Keke Rosberg, quickly became top names in the series.
Newman was committing so much of his time and energy to racing that it raised questions about the future of his movie career. Ten years earlier he could have taken a sabbatical without worrying about staying in demand. But in the years since The Sting, films like Slap Shot and Quintet, which he had wedged in between racing seasons, had failed at the box office as well as with critics. His fault or just bad movies? One thing was certain: by now he was too old to play his traditional role as Hud or Harper. It was an interesting irony: Paul's acting career was being affected by his age, while his racing career blossomed as he grew older.
Then came 1979. Having resisted previous impulses to try the more dangerous forms of racing, he decided to drive (in addition to the Datsuns) a Porsche in the 24-hour endurance races at Daytona and Le Mans. "I've thought a lot about the chances of getting hurt in racing," he said one day. "I'm not one of those people who just puts it out of his mind. I know the average guy can go to the office with a broken leg and on crutches, but there's simply no way I can get in front of those cameras if there's anything wrong." So far, Newman's worst scare had been a blown engine, which filled the cockpit with smoke; unable to find the door handle, he thought for a moment he might suffocate, but it turned out not to be a serious incident. However, driving a turbocharged, 700-horsepower Porsche—that was loading the pistol.
Daytona was inconclusive; Newman's Porsche broke down early in the game. Next came Le Mans. Paul was teamed with Dick Barbour, the owner of the car, and Rolf Stommelen, a highly experienced German ace. Partway into the race, it began to rain. At Le Mans rain is deadly because the track surface is exceptionally smooth and doesn't drain well. As your tires aquaplane across the puddles, the steering wheel jerks back and forth in your hands; a car may skate for several seconds before regaining its grip on the pavement. In such conditions, with a car going nearly 200 mph, sheer nerve counts as much as skill. Newman had a number of close calls. "I almost got caught passing a slower car at the fast kink in the straight," he says. "His spray was blinding me, but I thought when I got past him my wipers would clear the windshield in time for me to see the next turn. But it turned out there was another car in front of him, my windshield didn't clear and I had to guess where I was. Another time, as I was coming out of the pits, it was raining pretty hard and the windshield was covered with water. But it turned out much of it was from the rooster tail of a slower car I never suspected was there. I nearly crawled right up that guy's back."
Despite the hazards of the race, the Newman-Barbour-Stommelen Porsche finished second. At Le Mans. This is one of the world's most famous races, and there was Newman on the victory stand, spraying champagne over a crowd of cheering Frenchmen. Three weeks later Newman and his teammates underscored their Le Mans success with another second place, this time in a six-hour race at Watkins Glen.
After this foray into the major leagues, Paul's appearances in the SCCA's Northeast division races took on the air of a Broadway star playing summer stock. Nevertheless, he attacked each race with a vengeance. In the sedan, Newman was undefeated, winning eight races in a row; with the team's new 280ZX, he won six of eight. He set lap records at most of the tracks on which he raced. He was hot. "It took seven years, but all at once things have started to pull together. I can feel it," he told me.
More than ever he was a magnet for the crowds and press. At Le Mans he'd been angered by the way the press exploited him. "I was out jogging in the country, 35 miles from Le Mans, at seven o'clock in the morning on one of those deserted roads," he said, "and here come these bastards leaning out of their car with their cameras, shooting every step I take. And during the race, when I'd try to go back to the camper to rest, there were so many of them clicking away and taking flash shots, it was like walking through a field of crickets." But back home, where he was driving in front of crowds that had watched him race in the days of the 510, he was willing to pose for his fans. Once, after one of these sessions, Newman appeared suddenly in the motor home, laughing. "That's it," he said, "No more for today. Some old dame just handed me her poodle and told me to hold it while she got the shot. All I am is a piece of meat—just a piece of meat on the circuit."
Occasionally, his star aura was too much for his admirers. I came upon one man standing at the back of the crowd mumbling the same line over and over—rehearsing what he hoped to say to Paul. Women wanted to mother him; one, seeing a crush of people surrounding his car on the grid before a race, began screaming, "Can't you leave the poor dear alone?" and attempted to push people away; most of them were Newman's crew. Newman's success led to his speaking to reporters more often. A celebrity of his magnitude learns to be guarded in what he says, and the reporters (usually people out from the local paper) rarely knew anything about racing, so the interviews wound up studded with clichés like "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." He repeated, word for word, certain stories that he thought were good until they lost most of their life. It was not that Paul lacked imagination, rather that he didn't trust his extemporaneous remarks and was afraid to disappoint people. So the star did a little memorizing of his own.