Bit by the racing bug at age 47, he lived the sport until the day he died.
The call at home would have been considered an unusual one if you didn’t know the guy as well as the person who answered the telephone did. “Dave? I’ve got a deal from a guy in Maine,” the familiar voice on the other end said. “It’s a custom Volvo 960 station wagon, OK? But it’s different. He’s going to take a small-block Ford V8 racing engine, strip out the transmission and suspension, then supercharge it. My guy’s gonna make it for me. Would you like one?” David Letterman was stunned. “Well yeah, Paul,” Letterman told the caller. “Wouldn’t we all?”
So Letterman, one of America’s most famous late-night talk show hosts and a car nut, told Paul Newman, one of America’s most famous actors and a car nut, to go for it.
Supercharge the Volvo. Swedish safety be damned! Go nuts!
“So, Paul eventually brings the car over, drops the car off and this is the kind of car that people would stare at street lights,” Letterman told his TV audience earlier this year upon Newman’s death. “It was like an atomic furnace under the hood. I used to love driving it. It would go 170 miles per hour and underneath the exhaust system would glow bright orange.”
Then one day Letterman was in the Volvo on a New York Interstate with his girlfriend when she asked a simple question: “What’s that smell?”
Letterman turned to her and said, “Raw power and speed, baby.”
Wrong. The Volvo was on fire.
“We had to pull over, the car was shooting flames everywhere. It couldn’t handle the power,” Letterman said. “I call Paul, and say ‘The wheel wells, everything is on fire.’ But, wow, what a car. Paul Newman and I were the only ones with this car.”
Unique and Newman always traveled together. He’s remembered as an actor, a colleague, a friend, and most importantly, perhaps, a towering philanthropist. But leave it to Letterman to pay the most respect to the car legend.
“A guy who knew how to live life,” Letterman told his audience not long ago.
Said Newman in a 1991 interview with the New York Daily News: “I had no natural gift to be anything, not an athlete, not an actor, not a writer, not a director, a painter of garden porches, not anything. So I’ve worked really hard, because nothing ever came easily to me.”
Paul Newman, however, was the real thing.
He died at 83 in his Connecticut home, fittingly close to Lime Rock Raceway.
His career in acting could fill one end of the Internet to the other; more than 100 movies, TV shows and stageplays. But whatmost people wouldn’t know is that he lived cars. He breathed cars. He could have only done cars and would have been happy.
He was a skilled, serious, professional and world-class race-car driver as well as one of the most successful team owners in the sport’s history. Historians said that had he never acted, his racing career alone would have garnered him great fame and fortune.
Those who knew him remember that he was always easy to spot in the garage. Shorter than expected. Movie star thin. Blue eyes searing the darkness of the garage. And always accessible.
Newman began racing after starring in Winning, a 1969 movie about Indy-style oval-track, openwheel racing. He loved the taste of a race course and the smell of ethanol. He took to road racing on long tracks where he could use his skill on left and right turns.
He began racing professionally in 1972 at age 47 and would continue for another 30 years, first with Datsun (later Nissan) and was a regular in Victory Lane. Newman as a racer was affiliated with Bob Sharp Racing (Datsun and Nissan) and Dick Barbour Racing (Porsche). He finished second in 1979 at the 24 Hours of LeMans endurance race in France, in a Porsche. He won his class at the 1995 24 Hours of Daytona, Fla., endurance race, at age 70. He was the oldest driver to win a major professional racing event. In 1985, he won the Sports Car Club of American National Championship, GT1 Class.
But most of his success came as a co-owner with Carl Haas, a sports-car driver, team owner and Lola race-car and parts importer. In 1983, they formed Newman-Haas Racing on the open-wheel circuits and enjoyed enormous success in the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) open-wheel series.
Newman/Haas signed two ex-Formula One World Champions — Nigel Mansell and Mario Andretti — compiled 107 Indy car race wins.
He was also a partner in the Formula Atlantic Championship team Newman Wachs Racing and owned a NASCAR Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) car before selling it to Penske Racing.
He was a brand: from the sale of “Newman’s Own” labeled salad dressings and spaghetti sauces. Almost all of it has gone to benefit sick children.
His movie bosses were never happy with his racing so he would enter events with a pseudonym or as PL Newman. But he was always afforded privacy and respect at the race track, usually walking or riding a mini-motorcycle alone with no security.
Personally, I will never forget the day some years ago when I met him in Cleveland, Ohio, 24 hours before a race. The moment was a glimpse into the legend.
I was walking through the pit area, a young reporter in search of a story, and there he was.
In the moment, I asked for an interview.
“Sure, kid,” he said. “I’ve got two minutes, but you probably have 20 questions. Give me your best question and I’ll answer it.”
What’s your greatest moment in racing, I asked?
“Tomorrow,” he said. “And, if not then, next week.”
Steven Reive is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at: www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.