People know him as legendary Hollywood actor, but Paul Newman was also a great professional racer, winning big races at an age many people are afraid to drive at all.
“I’m not a very graceful person. I was a sloppy skier, a sloppy tennis player, a sloppy football player and a sloppy dancer with anyone other than Joanne. The only thing I found grace in was racing a car.” – Paul Newman
It was year 2007 and an old man was strapping himself into a GT-1 class Chevrolet Corvette, a beastly, 700-horsepower racecar, for his last race at the Watkins Glen International racing circuit. He came through the finishing line in fourth place. The number on his car, 82, symbolized his age. He was listed as PL Newman, but for people outside racing, he was better known as Paul Newman, a Hollywood star.
A Movie that Started It All
His story in racing began some 38 years earlier. Having always been interested in fast cars – he owned several innocent looking but unexpectedly fast Volkswagens with Porsche engines or American V8s – Newman accepted a role of racecar driver Frank Capua in the movie Winning. By his own account, he turned down two parts that offered more money, just because Winning meant an opportunity to learn to drive a racing car.
He and his co-star, Robert Wagner, became one of the first students in the famous Bob Bondurant Racing school and Newman, even though he later said that he was terrible at the beginning, was showing signs of a real talent. The movie, grossing $14 million, wasn’t a particular hit, but it became a great turning point in Newman’s life. He decided that what he really wants to do is racing – and acting slowly became the less important part of his life, a way to pay his bills.
Starting at the age of 46 as a wealthy Hollywood star, one would expect Newman to take the easy way and hop right into some top-level racing car, like a Porsche or a Ferrari, and perhaps hire a hotshoe professional driver to help him score well in endurance racers.
Newman wasn’t like that. He wanted to do it the right way and really build up his skills. As his first racecar, he chose Datsun 510. A small, boxy saloon that didn’t look like much, but was popular for its great handling (and low price). It was a perfect car for a beginner in racing, maybe an equivalent to today’s hot hatchbacks.
This decision paid off, as did the diligent, methodical approach to building up his skills. In 1972, PL Newman, as he called himself in racing in order to avoid attention, entered his first professional race for Bob Sharp Racing and he started to move upwards in the world of circuit racing. From tiny Datsun 510, he moved on to much more powerful 280ZX and started winning races. In 1976, he first became an SCCA class D champion on a Triumph TR6.
Becoming a Racing Pro
By the late 1970s, it became clear that Newman is really much more than some “celebrity racer”. He won the SCCA championship again, this time with 280ZX, achieving a historic success for the Japanese brand. Even more importantly, he came to 24h LeMans, one of the hardest and most famous endurance races in the world. And together with the team owner Dick Barbour and F1 racer Rolf Stommelen, he managed to bring their Porsche 935 “Moby Dick” into the finish in the 2ndplace overall, winning their class. A spectacular result by any standard, not to mention for someone who was 54 at the time, started racing less than decade ago and did it as a “side gig” to his acting.
It was one of the high points of his career, but certainly not the end of it. He continued to race throughout the 1980s, winning another two SCCA titles and competing in many various races during those years.
Age Is Just a Number
In 1995, Paramount Pictures presented Paul Newman with a sponsored ride in the 24h Daytona, an American equivalent of LeMans. He was to drive a GTS-1 class Ford Mustang prepared by Roush. The car carried number 70 in honour of his age, as became his custom later. A seventy-year-old in a major race? An old man’s folly? No, he managed to win his class and finish 5thoverall, becoming the oldest driver to be part of a winning team in a major sanctioned race.
Newman went back to 24h Daytona once more – a decade later, at the age 80. This time, he was driving a car of his own team, Newman/Haas Racing, that was his other big accomplishment in the racing world. The team was one of the most successful in the CART/ChampCar series from early 1980s to late 2000s, with drivers like Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell and Sébastien Bourdais winning championships – the latter one for four years in a row, from 2004 to 2007.
So, do you think you are too old for racing? That you had to start young, have unnatural talent and train fulltime to achieve anything meaningful? Remember Paul Newman and think again. Maybe you won’t win LeMans or Daytona, but you can still become good!