Paul Newman was introduced to motor racing in 1968 while filming a movie at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and that brief relationship blossomed into a 40-year passion for the sport that included not only co-ownership of one of the most powerful teams in US open-wheel racing, but also his own successful driving career.
Newman, the Academy Award-winning actor and world-renowned activist and humanitarian, died on Friday, aged 83, at his home in Connecticut, prompting a flood of tributes from all the worlds he inhabited.
An extremely private man, he quietly admitted that he had never paid any particular attention to motorsports until the summer of '68, when he shot scenes at the Brickyard for the film Winning
. It started out merely as the latest project in which he happened to be involved but, typically, he totally immersed himself in the role, and evidently something within it rubbed off.
An early indication came when he seemed to bond with Rodger Ward, the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner who served as the film's technical director and driver of the 'camera car' for some of the on-track sequences. When Newman flew in for an exploratory visit during the spring, he stayed the night at Ward's home and, once back for the three weeks or so of shooting immediately following the 1968 500, was a guest there on more than one occasion.
While virtually all of the 'staged' on-track sequences - which were intercut with actual 1968 500 footage - were performed by a half a dozen or so current drivers, the Bob Bondurant Driving School-trained Newman elected to waive the use of a stunt double. In the footage used from the actual race, the fictitious Frank Capua is really Bobby Unser, on his way to winning the 500 but, in the majority of the close-up cockpit shots, the helmeted figure is actually Newman, matching the speed of the camera car driven by Ward.
When shooting at the track wrapped up at the beginning of July, United States Auto Club director of competition Henry Banks went over to present Newman and fellow actor Robert Wagner with honorary USAC Championship driver licences. Upon returning to the USAC office, Banks revealed, with amusement, that, at the conclusion of the brief trackside ceremony, Newman had discreetly sidled up to him to inquire what he had to do 'to do to get a real one'.
It transpired that Newman's new-found interest was more than just a whim, and it wasn't long before he began competing at Sports Car Club of America [SCCA] regional events, and doing so, without fanfare, as merely PL Newman. He entered into a long-term relationship with Connecticut neighbour Bob Sharp and raced Sharp-prepared cars for many years.
More than two decades later, when Sharp's son, Scott, qualified for his first 500 in 1994 and was being interviewed over the public address immediately thereafter, a delighted, but ever-private, Newman casually strolled into Scott's line of vision between the battery of photographers and gave the young driver a heartfelt thumbs-up.
Newman's first SCCA victory as a driver came in 1972, with a Lotus Elan at Thompson, Connecticut, not far from his home. In 1976, he won his first of four SCCA championships, this one in D-Production. A title in C-Production followed in 1979, followed by a pair in the GT-1 category in 1985 and 1986. In 1982, he beat a stellar field of professionals to win the Trans-Am race at Brainerd, and he was to win a second Trans-Am event at Lime Rock, in his home state, in 1986.