People know him as a legendary Hollywood actor, but Paul Newman was also a great professional racer, winning big races at an age when 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 the year 2007 and an old man was strapping himself into a GT-1 class Chevrolet Corvette, a 700-horsepower beast of a car, for his last race at the Watkins Glen International racing circuit. He crossed the finishing line in fourth place. The number on his car, 82, symbolized his age. He was listed as PL Newman, but to people outside racing, he was better known as Paul Newman, the Hollywood movie star.

A Movie that Started It All

His racing story 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 the role of racecar driver Frank Capua in the movie Winning. By his own account, he turned down two parts that offered more money because Winning offered him the chance to drive a racing car.

He and his co-star, Robert Wagner, became two of the first students in the famous Bob Bondurant Racing school. Newman, even though he later said that he was terrible at to begin with, was showing signs of real talent. The movie, grossing $14 million, wasn’t a particular hit, but it was a great turning point in Newman’s life. He decided that what he really wanted to do was race. Acting gradually became less important to him, a way to pay his bills.

Beginning Slow

Starting at the age of 46 as a wealthy Hollywood star, you might have expected Newman to take the easy route. He could have hopped right into some top-level racing car, like a Porsche or a Ferrari, and hired a hotshot professional driver to help him score well in endurance races.

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 a Datsun 510. A small, boxy saloon that didn’t look like much, but was popular for its great handling (and low price). It was the perfect car for a beginner in racing, rather like today’s hot hatchbacks.

This decision paid off, as did his diligent, methodical approach to developing his skills. He used the name PL Newman when racing, to avoid attention, and in 1972 he entered his first professional race for Bob Sharp Racing. He began to move upwards in the world of circuit racing. From the tiny Datsun 510, he moved on to the much more powerful 280ZX and started winning races. In 1976, driving a triumph TR6, he became an SCCA class D champion for the first time.

Becoming a Racing Pro

By the late 1970s, it became clear that Newman was much more than just a “celebrity racer”. He won the SCCA championship again, this time with a 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. Together with team owner Dick Barbour and F1 racer Rolf Stommelen, he managed to bring their Porsche 935 “Moby Dick” to the finish line in 2ndplace overall, winning their class. A spectacular result by any standard, let alone for someone who was 54 at the time, had started racing less than a decade before and who 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 a variety of races during those years.

Age Is Just a Number

In 1995, Paramount Pictures presented Paul Newman with a sponsored ride in the 24h Daytona, the American equivalent of LeMans. He was to drive a GTS-1 class Ford Mustang prepared by Roush. The car carried the number 70 in honour of his age, which is where this custom began. 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 ever to be part of a winning team in a major sanctioned race.

Newman went back to the 24h Daytona once more – a decade later, at the age of 80. This time, he was driving a car belonging to his own team, Newman/Haas Racing, his other big accomplishment in the racing world. The team was one of the most successful in the CART/ChampCar series from the early 1980s to the late 2000s, with drivers like Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell and Sébastien Bourdais winning championships – the latter for four years in a row, from 2004 to 2007.

So, if you think you’re too old for racing, that you have to start young, have masses of talent and train fulltime to achieve anything meaningful, you should remember Paul Newman and think again. Maybe you won’t win LeMans or Daytona, but you can still become good!