Paul Newman wasn’t a race car driver. He just played one on the big screen.
Much to the dismay of his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, that changed after 1969’s “Winning,” a movie centered on the life of a race car driver.
“She has been patient beyond almost anything,” Newman said in a 2006 interview. “She married an actor. She had no idea he’d spend his weekends at racetracks.” Newman then leaned forward and showed off a gift from Woodward: a Rolex with the words “Drive slowly” inscribed on the back.
He joked that Woodward had threatened to divorce him if he continued to race, but he still turned laps in sports cars as late as last year.
Newman, a legendary actor whose career spanned more than half a century, died Friday from lung cancer. He was 83.
“If he would have been introduced to the sport earlier, he would have had an incredible career,” longtime Newman friend and racing legend Mario Andretti said in an interview Saturday afternoon from his home in Nazareth, Pa. “He still did. He definitely understood the techniques of driving fast and the fact he won several championships speaks for itself. For God’s sake, he was in his 80s and he was still in a race car.”
Newman’s first victory came in 1972 in Thompson, Conn., and winning became habitual. He won his first of four Sports Car Club of America national championships in 1976. Newman, who was still Oscar-less at the time, was awarded the President’s Cup that same year by the SCCA, the highest honor given by the racing organization to an amateur.
“He began racing against guys with 10 or 20 years of experience and he was keeping up with them,” says longtime friend Bob Sharp, who helped Newman early in his sports-car-racing career. “He was a perfectionist and wanted to do everything the right way. It only took him a couple of years to become a winner.”
He competed in as many as 20 events per year after turning pro in 1977, about the same time his workload as an actor began to taper off.
His pro career was highlighted by winning the 1995 24 Hours of Daytona, the USA’s most prestigious endurance race.
Newman said that racing didn’t exactly fill a void. Racing and acting “were in parallel for a long time, and one just kind of disappeared.”
Sharp said he talked Newman out of retiring from racing on a couple of occasions, long enough for him to eventually team up with fellow sports car team owner Carl Haas to form what became a power in open-wheel racing.
“This is a perfect example how opposites attract,” Andretti said. “The two were rivals in (the) Can-Am (sports car series). Paul was very intrigued by the idea.”
Newman and Haas hired Andretti, who had an Indy 500 victory and Formula One championship on his resume, and the trio found instant success in their 1983 debut season, winning in just their sixth race and claiming the title the next year.
“His support of the team’s drivers, crew and the racing industry is legendary,” Haas said in a statement. “His pure joy at winning a pole position or winning a race exemplified the spirit he brought to his life and to all those that knew him. We will truly miss him.”
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