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The sweep of the summer led inexorably to the national championships at Road Atlanta, which now loomed as races it would be embarrassing for Newman to lose. When I arrived at the track, I expected to find him tense and apprehensive. But instead of closeting himself in his motor home as he often had in previous years, he spent hours sitting in a lawn chair on a grassy knoll above the pits, wearing cutoffs and a T shirt, reading a script. One afternoon I pulled a chair up next to his. Below us, crowded together, were trucks, motor homes and racing cars from all parts of the country. Newman's success meant that for 1980 he would have to choose between racing again in the same classes, which would be anticlimactic or taking the step into a faster car.
"Whatever it is, I don't want to get in over my head," he said. "If I'd started 10 years earlier I might have wanted to do things differently, you know, try for the whole ball of wax. But I didn't, so there's no point in talking about that.
"I've got something else to think about, too," he continued, tossing the script on the grass and propping his feet up on a trash barrel covered with old decals. "My movie career is in shambles. I've got to do something about that, if I can." There were two projects, he said, that he was interested in. The first was The Shadow Box, a Pulitzer prize-winning play he would direct for TV. The other was a movie, Fort Apache, The Bronx, in which he would star. As he gave me the details, I was surprised to find him so enthusiastic. For several years he had given the impression that acting was just the way he paid the rent. This was different, and it prompted me to ask if he was considering quitting racing to go back to acting full time.
"Yeah," he answered, "I have thought about it. I said to Joanne that I might retire now, if I won here." He paused. "I've had good equipment, safe equipment. That means a hell of a lot. Gene has been the best. I guess I thought there would come a point when I'd start getting slower and that would make me want to quit. But so far, as I've gotten older I've gotten faster, and now I guess I want to see how long that can continue."
Subsequently, in a meeting with Sharp, Newman made his plans for this year. The centerpiece of the program, which would involve racing in three different classes, was to be the construction of a turbocharged, 700-horsepower Datsun for the top class of IMSA competition. This monster car, with its wing, special aerodynamic ground effects and 200-mph-plus top speed, would be at least as fast as the Porsche Newman had driven at Le Mans. The Datsun, however, would be entered in much shorter races, and Newman would be obliged to push the unproved prototype to the limit, not drive it conservatively as a driver is expected to do in long-distance events. For the second time in less than a year, Newman was preparing to take a major step, not only into one of the fastest cars anywhere but also into the world of full-time professional drivers.
Then he went out with the small Datsun sedan, the car in which he had been undefeated all year, and blew the race. After a poor start he tangled with another car and went off the road. He recovered and finished third, but the race left no doubt that he had reverted temporarily to his form of 1978.
Newman's other race, for the 280ZX, was just a day away. The turbo car, which had been the subject of excited discussion among members of Sharp's team, was no longer mentioned; it would be a hollow undertaking if the man who would drive it hadn't proved himself beyond doubt. The confidence of the whole team, not to mention a national championship, was at stake as Paul took to the track late the following afternoon. Races are won in all sorts of ways; this one Paul took in classic style, making a brilliant start, then pulling away at a lap-record pace from a field that included three previous national champions.
Scene Three: August 1980; an old Air Force base 65 miles north of New York City. The vast concrete stretches are occasionally used by Sharp's team to shake down its new cars. The huge Sharp transporter, dwarfed for once by the surroundings, rolls into view. Moments later Newman appears in a Volkswagen Rabbit convertible, top down. So far, his 1980 racing season has seesawed between success and failure. In his first race after Road Atlanta he extended his winning streak with a victory in an SCCA National at Riverside, and then, in his first professional race of the year he took an excellent third at Road Atlanta in April. From there, things turned sour. Minor accidents at Lime Rock and Brainerd, Minn. were followed by the first major crash of his career. It happened at Golden State Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., and I was following Paul on the track at the time. I rounded a curve to find his car on its roof, its wheels in the air. As I pulled to a stop he was scrambling out through the window, bleeding from a cut on his forehead. Four days later, demonstrating conclusively that he had been unaffected by the crash, he drove one of his finest races, finishing second in one of IMSA's tough professional events.
Now Sharp's men have the turbo Datsun out of the transporter. The car, amazing in its close-to-the-ground appearance and its suggestion of raw power, crouches on the runway. Gene Crowe warms up the 700-horsepower engine. Paul climbs aboard, settles himself into the cockpit, which is tailormade to fit him. He has told me that he is ambivalent about the car, worried that its awesome performance will perhaps be too much for him.
He puts it in gear and drives off. In seconds the car is a thin red sliver in the distance. Then Paul circles back to the transporter and stops the engine. He is grinning.