Newman factor still on track

The green flag won’t fall on the 29th grand prix of Long Beach for another 24 hours and 45 minutes, which means it’s time to stand in the pit lane and watch the competitors in the pro-celebrity race buzz past in their souped-up Toyotas, marvelling all the while at how a simple word like ‘celebrity” can be bent and stretched and twisted until it loses its meaning entirely.

Angie Everhart, Tommy Shane Steiner, Steve Harman, Tony Potts, James Brolin, Dave Pasant; these are not ‘celebrities”, not even in their PR flunkies’ wildest fantasies.

In such 10W celebrity company only Buzz Aldrin — second on the Moon, dead last in the race — would escape prosecution under the Trades Description Act. Not that this matters to the sun-kissed thousands in the stands, who whoop and holler and hang on to the post-victory words of race winner Peter Reckell as if he’s just chiselled them out on granite tablets.

Back in the VIP paddock, an old man with alabaster skin and hands flecked with age spots climbs on to a battered Honda scooter. He’s wearing a cream safari jacket, white Polo shirt, a dark blue cap pulled down over his forehead and huge, black-framed sunglasses. Paul Newman — slim, neat, cool — looks every day of his 78 years but he could still tuck the combined star power of the pro-celebrity race into the back pocket of his chinos and have plenty of room left for his wallet.

He turns on the scooter’s ignition, then makes a careful three-point turn before weaving off through the throng, unnoticed while Reckell — star of dire daytime American soap opera Days of Our Lives, for anyone who is interested — soaks up the adulation.

It would be tempting to spin this sad little vignette into a lament about the fickleness of public taste were it not that this is exactly how Newman likes to live his life.

‘Twenty-five years ago I couldn’t walk down the street without being recognised,” he told an interviewer last year.

‘Now I can put a cap on, walk anywhere and no one pays me any attention. They don’t ask me about my movies and they don’t ask me about my salad dressing because they don’t know who I am. Am I happy about this? You bet.”

In which case the star of The Hustler, Slap Shot, The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and much else besides must never be happier than when he’s motoring around on his scooter at events like the grand prix of Long Beach.

It would be a mistake, however, to say that anonymity alone is what draws Newman to events like this. A huge mistake. After all, this is a man who has had a 35-year obsession with racing cars; a man who carries the multimillion-dollar burden that comes with owning a racing team; a septuagenarian screen legend who has earned the right to potter around in sunbathed paradise in his old age but chooses instead to spend his weekends at the race track, sitting at his perch in the pit lane, staring at the read-outs from the in-car computers.

‘Paul’s passion is real,” says Mario Andretti, former formula one (F1) world champion, one-time Newman employee and long-time friend.

‘Through everything, the good times and the bad, the guy has always been there. This isn’t some Hollywood rich boy, posing around — the guy just loves cars and racing.”

It’s hard to keep up with the alphabet soup of United States motor sports, where the politics are as fierce as anything that happens on the track and there’s an acronym for every month on the calendar — Nascar, Trans-Am,

Can-Am, IRL, SCCA, Champ Car and so on. But in this changing world

Newman’s presence has been a constant for more than three decades; as a

driver, a sponsor and team owner.

Since 1983, when Andretti persuaded him to set aside his on-track rivalry with the racer Carl Haas, the actor has been the co-owner of Newman-Haas Racing, one of the pre-eminent teams in the Championship Auto Racing Teams (Cart) race series.

According to Andretti, Newman and Haas hated each other so much they barely spoke for the first three years. Nevertheless, from that unpromising start they forged a successful partnership, winning 68 Cart races over the next 20 years. Most famously — at least to motor racing fans in the United Kingdom — when Nigel Mansell left F1 in 1992, he came to the US and drove for Newman-Haas, winning his first ever race en route to a championship in his rookie season.

Last year, Cristiano da Matta — now driving for Toyota in F1 — won the team’s fourth Cart championship.

‘They are the best organised and best financed team on the grid,” says one US journalist.

‘The surprise is they don’t win the championship every year.”

It’s early in the 2003 season but even so it’s unlikely that Newman-Haas’s two new drivers, 27-year-old Brazilian Bruno Junqueira and Sebastien Bourdais, a promising French rookie, will follow in Da Matta’s path. If neither man seems unduly concerned about this, it’s probably because they have other things to worry about; namely, will they still have a drive in Cart next year?

Beset by falling TV ratings and the struggling US economy, the race series is currently losing millions and is looking for a ‘saviour”. A rescue deal with Bernie Ecclestone is in the offing but there are a few chicanes to negotiate before anything is signed. In the meantime, it’s all hands to the pumps.

Last weekend the Cart teams arrived at Brands Hatch to race for the London Champ Car Trophy — round four of the 2003 season — and to publicise the event Newman agreed to make what for him has become the ultimate sacrifice: he consented to be interviewed.

His reticence in front of the journalist’s notebook is notorious but, according to the effusive PR man for the Cart series, it doesn’t apply when the questions are about motor sports.

‘Ask him why he is so passionate about racing, Trust me, he won’t shut up,” he enthuses.

So, when I am ushered into the hospitality tent next to the Newman-Haas motor home to meet the boss I start by asking him why he’s so passionate about racing.

‘Oh, well, mmm,” Newman replies before settling back in his seat for the first of what would be many long pauses. Eventually, he leans forward.

‘I think as a racer you can either be violent and aggressive or you can be smooth. I’ve always found it compelling to see if you can go fast and do it very gracefully.”

Is it true that if he’d discovered the joy of motor racing when he was 30, as opposed to his mid-40s, he would have given up acting and tried to make a living as a professional driver?

‘Did I say that? No, I didn’t say that.”

I show him a press cutting with the quote circled.

‘Oh well,” he says. ‘I must have had four beers at the time. Looking back, to have done that would have been an insanity because I had too big an investment in my profession.”

The great film critic Pauline Kael must have been having an off-day when she described Newman’s performance as a tortured, cuckolded Indy 500 driver in 1968 film Winning as one of his most impressive. It’s not, at least not when measured against his deranged ice-hockey coach in Slap Shot or the amoral pool shark Eddie Felson in The Hustler. Even Newman is lukewarm about Winning.

‘There’s never really been a great script about racing,” he says — although he retains an affection for the film, not least it allowed to play alongside the love of his life — the actress, and his wife, Joanne Woodward, and because it introduced him to the great sporting passion of his life.

He had been in racing cars before Winning but he’d never been close enough to the action to get hooked.

‘The first thing that attracted me was the speed,” he says.

‘That, and the faint possibility that I might get good at it one day. It offered me the chance to be graceful. I’d tried all sorts of other sports — skiing, tennis, high school football — and had never been any good at any of them. Racing just grabbed hold of me. I used to just slink off from doing pictures in order to try and get my licence.”

He finally succeeded in 1972.

‘I was really lucky in that there was a Datsun dealer who lived seven minutes away from my house and who had a race team and ran in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) races. He had a really classy, sophisticated operation and so that’s how I started, driving a little four-cylinder Datsun, and just worked my way up. There was no point in racing unless I really took it seriously, so that’s what I did. I turned my schedule round so I could take off from March until the beginning of October. I just wouldn’t work at all, except in winter.”

For the next decade Newman spent his summers racing — and winning — at tracks across the US. In 1976, he became the SCCA Champion (for want of a better comparison, this would be like the golf-mad Hugh Grant winning the British Amateur golf title). He won the championship again in 1979, the same year he took part in the Le Mans 24-hour race, where he finished second in a Porsche.

There’s no doubt Newman can drive, although there’s much debate about how well. For his part, the actor is self-effacing: ‘I suppose the best you could say is I’m pretty smooth. I was always better at the high speed stuff on tracks, rather than the road stuff. I didn’t muscle the car enough for the roads.”

But there are some who beg to differ, among them former Le Mans winner Rob Dyson, who started off in SCCA races at the same time as Newman.

‘We would race around 15 weekends a year and I can tell you he was a terrific driver, as committed to the craft as he was to acting,” he has said. ‘This is a guy who could have gone to the top levels of racing had he not come to the sport so late.”

Andretti isn’t quite as effusive, although this might have as much to do with his own impossibly high standards as any shortcomings in his friend’s ability.

‘I guess I would give him a seven out of 10,” he says, before quickly upgrading Newman to an eight.

‘A few years ago Ford asked me to do some evaluation on their road cars so I called Paul up and asked if wanted to come down and have some fun with me. I got on the track, established some times, then the Ford test drivers did some laps, and then Paul. He was running quicker than some of the test drivers — these guys were going crazy, they couldn’t believe an actor was running faster than they were. One of them crashed his car

because he pushed too hard trying to beat Paul.

‘The thing about this guy is that he’s so competitive. He hates getting beat — hates it. The other thing he has going for him is that he is so methodical.

He’s a serious driver — to hell with the hype and all that Hollywood bullshit. If he’s not quicker than the next guy, he likes to understand why. Would he have made it as a pro? I think he had a decent chance of being a force to be reckoned with. Maybe.”

As a driver, maybe; as a team owner, definitely.

‘Who is going to turn down the chance to own a race car team when Mario Andretti offers to be your driver?” is Newman’s phlegmatic account of his move into team ownership.

‘I thought I was going to retire from racing and I might need a little protection. It was just an alternative to driving.”

Owning a race team is an expensive business but it helps if the owner has one of the biggest names in Hollywood. In 1983 Newman was still at the height of his fame and power. His name brought glamour to Newman-Haas Racing and hence sponsorship money. It didn’t, however, bring victories. A disappointing first year ended with Andretti threatening to leave and Newman making the journey to his star driver’s Pennsylvania home in an effort to persuade him to stay.

‘He had been so loyal, such a good friend, how could I tell him no?” Andretti says.

The following year Newman-Haas Racing got its act together and

Andretti won the Cart championship. The team has won races in all but one year since.

‘We’ve been lucky, I guess, with the drivers we’ve had,” says Newman, reeling off some of the names who have driven for Newman-Haas, among them Andretti and his son Michael and, of course, Mansell.

‘Watching people like Nigel drive is just … awesome,” he says wistfully.

‘Believe me. I feel the same way about them as other actors feel about [Lawrence] Olivier.”

Surprisingly, or at least it was to those on this side of the Atlantic who had grown weary of Mansell’s self-absorbed whining, the mustachioed Brit and the glamorous American hit it off.

‘That first year, ’93, was one of the best years we ever had. Nigel was a star … mercurial … a real character. I kept telling him he should have been in films,” Newman says, laughing at the memory.

‘First time he drove for us it was on one of those oval tracks and he swore the US wasn’t worth living in, that you could take these oval tracks and shove them. Fifteen laps later, he’d knocked two-tenths off the lap record. Honestly, the guy was the biggest hustler you ever saw. He’d hustle you for a nickel — ‘bet you a nickel that gum drop tastes better than that gum drop’.

‘I saw him a couple of months ago in Florida. I didn’t recognise him. He’d shaved the moustache off.”

After 10 years as an owner, Newman remains as committed to the team as ever, turning up at every race on the calendar, even if — as happened earlier this year — it clashes with the Oscars ceremony, at which he had been nominated as Best Supporting Actor for his role in Sam Mendes’s Road to Perdition.

‘I burned my tuxedo five years ago and with that comes a certain resolution. There’s no sense in making resolutions if you’re going to break them,” he explains.

‘I promised myself that I wasn’t going to attend any of those functions. I’ve never been very comfortable at them and at my age a man is entitled to burn his tuxedo.”

Watching Newman spend the weekend at Long Beach, it is easy to see why he has made the choice. Cart racing is frequently, if inaccurately, compared to F1. The cars aren’t as sophisticated, the courses aren’t as technically demanding, but the atmosphere around the pit lane is infinitely more welcoming. As anyone who made the trip to Brands Hatch will discover, one of the pleasures of US motor sports is the access afforded to the paying public; to the paddocks; the drivers and mechanics as they work the cars. The beautiful folks who populate the world of F1 are more than welcome to come along, but they’ll have to take their chances with the masses.

If you’re really, really lucky, as I was, you can spend the entire race within touching distance of the Newman-Haas mechanics, watching them perform their tank-filling wheel-changing ballet through the mandatory three pit stops.

The team had hopes that either Junqueira or Bourdais, who had qualified second and third on the grid, would come through to win the race. It wasn’t to be. Bourdais’s engine blew up with a dozen laps to go, while Junquiera, caught out by a series of mid-race pit stops brought on by two crashes at the back of the field, could only finish third.

Newman watched events unfold from his perch in front of the computer screens. Throughout it all, the noise, the colour, the ebb and flow of a glorious day at the track, he said nothing and his expression never changed. And when it was all over he climbed down from his seat above the pit lane, jumped on his scooter and rode back through the crowd towards the Newman-Haas motor home, no doubt counting the minutes until the next race.

It’s a measure of Newman’s obsession with the sport that throughout his years as a team owner he has continued to race. Indeed, some of his best performances on the track have come in the past decade, among them his favourite victory, when he was part of the team that won the 1995 Daytona 24-hour race, not long after he’d celebrated his seventieth birthday.

‘Well, I’m 78 now and I’m still racing,” he shrugs as if there’s nothing remarkable about a pensioner winning Daytona, a race that has been compared to driving around the streets of San Francisco in a cement mixer while wearing a suit of armour.

‘I was racing last weekend. Was leading for a few laps, too, until I made a stupid mistake. That’s what happens when you get older — you don’t react so quick.”

Evidently so. There is enough evidence to support the assertion that his reactions aren’t what they used to be: the 296kph crash the week before his 75th birthday; and the 160kph smash at Watkins Glen in New York last summer which, according to some reports, left him badly shaken.

Of course, his celebrity ensures that every little prang makes the newspapers in detail but what’s beyond dispute is that his wife, Joanne, has been asking him to quit racing for years.

‘She ain’t exactly happy, that’s for sure,” Newman confirms. ‘But in the end she’s supportive. In any case, why would I want to retire? I know I’m old but I can still get in and out of the car, and as long as I’m able to do that, I’ll keep racing. What else am I going to do?” —

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