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Scene One: The victory stand at Le Mans. Cheering fans surge at the winners, who spray champagne over the crowds. In the center of the scene is Paul Newman, smiling and waving.
Scene Two: The victory stand at Road Atlanta. More cheers. More champagne. A lovely race queen. Once again Newman is at the center of the action. We see him accepting congratulations from his rivals. Now he beams a smile at Joanne Woodward, who stands at the fringe of the crowd. He tells reporters, "The car was so good even Shirley Temple could have won with it." Wild applause.
Scenes from another cornball racing epic? No. These are real. Paul Newman, racing driver, is real. To the surprise of most of America and the bewilderment of Hollywood, he has pursued with increasing intensity a racing career which this summer entered its ninth year. In racing circles his reputation has flourished. After a painfully slow start, he is now looked upon with respect, even amazement. Respect because his record includes two Sports Car Club of America national amateur championships and a second place in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Amazement because, in what conventional wisdom holds to be a young man's game, Newman is just hitting his stride at the age of 55.
He didn't even begin racing until he was 47. "I always liked fast cars, Corvettes and stuff like that," Newman says now, "but I was never interested in racing until I made that damn movie." The movie was Winning, a Hollywood-style racing picture shot in 1968 in which Newman did some of his own stunt driving. "I went to Bob Bondurant's School of High Performance Driving for the five-day course," he says, "but I had to do it in three because the shooting schedule was moved ahead. I wound up going from the two-liter Datsun road car used in the school to a Can-Am-type car with over 500 horsepower used in the movie, at which point it stopped being a matter of learning and became a question of trying to survive." But Newman was hooked. "I found I had enjoyed the precision of it, of controlling those cars," he says. "I could see it would be a gas to do something like that really well."
I first met Paul in 1972, the year he began racing. I live near the track at Lime Rock, Conn., where he often practiced. He would arrive by helicopter, landing out of view on the far side of the straight. He would come over to the pits alone, a small figure carrying his driving bag and walking with his head up, not looking at the ground. He wore dark glasses, rarely taking them off. He was acutely aware of photographers and, when he was sweaty and tired at the end of the day, he would turn away from them if he thought they were about to take an unflattering shot of him. If he was not in his race car, he stuck close to it, and when people went up to speak to him the conversation rarely went beyond a brief exchange of pleasantries.
I got a little further. I had driven at Indianapolis, had done a couple of Grand Prix races and had been third at Le Mans the year before. Paul would greet me effusively; he made a point of showing great respect for anyone who had made a reputation in the sport. After we'd shaken hands he'd tell a joke and I'd ask him something about his car, but after that the conversation would die. I supposed that he had been attracted, as other actors had, by the glamour and excitement of racing and would dabble in it for a while and then his interest would fade. I had seen that happen before. If you had told me then that someday Paul and I would be teammates, I would have said you were crazy.
His first racing car was a Datsun 510, a relatively slow, boxy sedan, with a gutted interior and a hefty roll cage. He drove it smoothly—and slowly—seemingly oblivious of the other cars around him. He rarely fought for a position. I'd hear people say that his steadiness was a promising sign, but I thought otherwise. The top drivers usually started out with blinding speed and crashed almost every car they got their hands on. Then somewhere along the line they would stop making mistakes and start winning. That, at least, was the pattern for most drivers destined for Indianapolis or the Grand Prix circuit. Now here was Newman, who was appearing at the time in The Sting as a con man and a lightning-fast cardsharp, plodding cautiously around the track. It just didn't add up.
"Of course, the 510 wasn't very glamorous, but I saw it as a stepping-stone," says Newman. "I particularly wanted to avoid the trap of getting in over my head just to satisfy what other people might have thought I should be doing. There are a lot of guys who would have jumped in at the deep end, and I was determined not to do that. I'm a slow study; I knew that before I started. When I was learning to act it took months of watching the others at Actors Studio before I began to get anywhere. But I'm not dumb, and when I got the car I was determined to learn my craft at whatever speed seemed sensible. I knew I had my way of doing things, so it never really bothered me.
"What did bother me was that it took me so long to get going. The first few times I had the car on the track I was having a lot of fun with it—before it dawned on me that I really wasn't very good. Then that changed things, and I got teed off. But I had no idea it would take as long as it did to be good at racing. There were long stretches when I was really disgusted with myself. Looking back now, I guess I must have wanted not to fail at it more than I realized."
Most racing drivers abhor the idea of being coached, but Newman, perhaps because he was accustomed to working with directors, was receptive to advice. Plenty was offered. On one occasion the late Graham Hill, twice world champion, came to see him race at the Pocono track in Pennsylvania. "He walked to one of the turns while I was practicing, watched me go by a few times and came back to the pits to tell me the shock absorbers were set wrong," Newman recalls. "How on earth Hill could tell that just by looking at the car I'll never know, but the difference that one change made was enough for me to win the race."