For many, Paul Newman was a blue-eyed god, a kick arse acting talent and a man who turned salad dressing into serious philanthropy. Also a notable producer-director and political activist, he can be officially counted as the person who had distributed more money - in relation to his own wealth - than any other American during the 20th century. How amazing is that? And those blue eyes to boot… But despite all of his success on screen and as a major raiser of cash for those in need, the actor claimed to be happiest behind the wheel of a racing car.
Racing legend Mario Andretti has spoken about meeting Paul Newman back in 1967, when the actor sponsored one of his cars in a race. He took the superstar for an obligatory spin around the track, and noticed Newman was “white-knuckling” it. But Andretti saw something else, too. “I quite honestly think,” he has said, “that captured his imagination.”
Tonight’s film WINNING: THE RACING LIFE OF PAUL NEWMAN (co-directed by comedian Adam Carolla) shows exactly how correct Andretti was. As a driver, Newman went on to win four SCCA National Championships, 24 Hours of Daytona, took true second at Le Mans (winning his class) and won multiple professional Trans Am races. The actor also owned Newman/Haas Racing with Carl Haas, and together with drivers Mario and Michael Andretti and Sebastien Bourdais, formed one of the most prolific Indycar teams in history, winning an amazing eight championships. To put it mildly: the star lived and breathed racing. To put pedal to metal bought him immense joy, and that is so obvious when watching the film.
Newman, who died in 2008 at 83, might have begun his career as one of Hollywood’s greatest stars, but much of the last half of his life was dedicated to auto racing and he widely acknowledged it as his true passion. But it was a passion he came to later in life. He was already a big star when, in 1968 he was cast with Robert Wagner in a racing film called simply, WINNING. The hunky pair took racing lessons to get into their roles, with one star falling head over heels whilst the other was happy to take or leave the new set of skills he had learned on the racetrack. “[Newman] embraced it and took it right into his soul,” Wagner later told the press, and for his co-star there was no looking back. While Wagner was all-too-happy for their lessons to end, Newman couldn’t get enough. He officially started racing for real at 48, and he wasn’t worried about starting at the bottom. “He wasn’t racing Ferraris. He was racing Datsuns. It was something the average guy could aspire to,” Jay Leno says in the film.
Soon, Newman was forcing film producers who wanted him in their films to schedule his work around his races. He was seriously hooked, and his star power saw many fall in line behind him if they wanted to work with him. He also took up championing the rights of others to race when and where they wanted, including one driver in particular who we meet in the film. Newman used his clout to level the playing field for others, and this included Willy Ribbs, a young black driver. In the film, Ribbs talks about how few people active within the sport supported him, and how the unbelievable amount of racist animosity from other drivers was palpable. Newman used his profile to arrange for Ribbs to be hired on a competitive team, making him a pro driver for the first time in his life. Ribbs later became the first black driver in the Indianapolis 500 and his indebtedness to Newman for his incredible support has lasted long after the actor’s death.
So there you have it - WINNING: THE RACING LIFE OF PAUL NEWMAN. One hell of a talent, one hell of a driver and one hell of a man. Enjoy.
WINNING: THE RACING LIFE OF PAUL NEWMAN premieres Thursday 15th September at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel