This is the most difficult column I’ve written. PAUL L. NEWMAN, died at home in Westport, Connecticut Friday from cancer. With him were his wife of fifty years, JOANNE WOODWARD, family and friends. Newman was 83.
The world will remember him as a great actor, humanitarian and motorsports enthusiast. Much will be written about his many roles and all the good works that he did, and his racing exploits. I could not begin to adequately chronicle his life. Rather, I’m sharing my personal memories and experiences with the man known as PLN.
When I met Newman it was the SCCA National Runoffs at Road Atlanta. Back in the day he was a competitive C Production driver, and I was a corner worker. He would walk down to Turn Eleven watch the cars coming down off the hill into the last corner before the Start-Finish straight. He would quietly just hang out and watch.
He got young actor, TOM CRUISE, into racing. Cruise raced the Runoffs and Newman sent him a huge bouquet of flowers which stood on the roof of Cruise’s Datsun. Newman didn’t want to detract from Cruise’s moment, so he remained in the background.
In 1980 I planned to leave right after the Sunday of the fall Laguna Seca Can Am race weekend to work The Runoffs. In those days Laguna Seca held two major races each year, spring and fall. I was working as Communicator at the old Turn Two station, and planned to head to SFO right after the race for a redeye flight. The Runoffs started Monday. Newman had been flying back and forth between Laguna and Road Atlanta for the Datsun test day which took place the same weekend as Can Am.
Saturday night of the Laguna weekend another Communicator, NORA DALY, and I were walking around the paddock at day’s end, checking out the cars. We were in the area adjacent to what was then called the Newman Building, which was ‘owned’ by PLN. We ran into him and chit chatted about the cars, races and so on. I asked if he was taking the red eye back to Atlanta. Newman said no because there had been problems in the Atlanta airport with the trains so he was flying his own plane, and asked if I wanted to go along. I was dumbstruck, and Daly had to speak up for me to accept and get the details of where I would meet him at the Monterey Airport.
Sunday immediately after the race, I climbed over the fence and was driven by my flagger friend, ARLEN LEE, to the Monterey Airport. I use the password Newman gave me, and went into area where the private planes were. Newman had a small jet, which was quite something in those days. There were five of us in the four-seater – two pilots, another man and myself. Newman was the last to arrive, so I made conversation with the blonde man in civilian clothes. I asked if he was in racing. He said his name was AL HOLBERT. Yet another time when words escaped me, as I was embarrassed that I didn’t recognize him outside his racing suit.
Newman invited me to go up and spend time with the pilots and see how it looked in the cockpit. There was no real bathroom, so Newman recommended I drink judiciously on the flight. The cooler was stocked with Budweiser. What else. He said that’s all he ever drank and also saw to it that he used it in his movies.
Among the subjects we discussed on the flight was a script he was reading for a movie he wanted to see made – Sophie’s Choice. Another topic was motorsports safety and the concerns we both shared. I asked him what he thought of the Jaws of Life, which was at the time the leading tool used at races – and in road accidents – to cut cars apart to free the passengers. I was a member of San Francisco Region Sports Car Club of America, and Newman belonged to the New England Region. He strongly advocated the tool and said he’d purchased one for the fire department in Westport.
At the time I was also president of USARM – United States Auto Race Marshals – a mostly Northern California group of race officials who worked on advancing training and were hired by Laguna Seca to work the annual motorcycle race. Our project at that time was raising money to buy a Jaws of Life for SFR through various activities.
It was an interesting, enjoyable flight and something to write about in one’s diary if I’d had one. I got to sit across from Newman and Holbert, looking straight into those intense blue eyes. He still had on his sunglasses, hanging from his ears around his neck.
The next spring at the Laguna IMSA race, Newman was there, and so was DAVID HOBBS, who was still racing at the time. USARM was holding a raffle Saturday night in front of the Newman building, giving away all kinds of things for which tickets had been sold all year. I’d seen Newman earlier in the weekend and on a whim, asked if he’d like to help draw tickets for the raffle. He not only agreed, he brought along his pal Hobbs.
It was a wild and crazy time. Newman and Hobbs held forth for half an hour, drawing tickets and doing standup comedy. A good time was had by all and will be long remembered by the SFR race officials.
Afterwards, Newman asked me how close we were to reaching our financial goal, and said if we needed any more money, he would give it to us – with only one caveat. It was to be anonymous.
USARM was able to purchase the Jaws in May, present it to SFR in June at a regional race, and utilized in the first race of the afternoon, successfully freeing a driver.
Newman was partnered with CARL HAAS for the past 26 years in owning race car teams, and MIKE LANIGAN recently joined as a third partner in the Indy Car team.
I have shared a few brief snapshots of my personal experiences with a man who found fame and fortune in films but found a safe haven for his soul and his passion in motorsports.
RIP PAUL NEWMAN 1925-2008.