I first saw Paul Newman at Lime Rock Park at an SCCA race in the 1970s. I’d heard he was racing, but I’d never seen him, maybe because we drove in different classes – Newman in C Production, me in Formula Vee. I had also gathered that there was an unspoken rule not to ask for an autograph or call him “Cool Hand” or generally be a pain in the ass. Just treat him like anyone else.
He raced a Datsun 240Z for Bob Sharp Motors and was listed in the program as P. L. Newman. Neither press nor fans knew he was racing, so they had no idea that P. L. Newman was Paul Newman, movie star. Later, I watched his race, which he won handily. He was very smooth and very fast. This was no movie star faking it; he was the real deal.
I met Newman a year later at Lime Rock. My event was over, and I was watching the races from a grandstand overlooking a fast downhill sweeper. Out of nowhere, he stepped up on the stand. I was still wearing Nomex, so he knew I was a driver. He put his hand out. “Hi, I’m Paul.”
“Hey! I’m Earle,” I answered, brilliantly.
We talked for a few minutes about track conditions and joked about a Formula Ford that went off course virtually every lap. We were just two guys who loved racing. He seemed relaxed and happy. After a while, he had to leave to get ready for his race. I wished him luck. I was glad he could freely walk around the racetrack with no one bothering him.
I saw him again a year or so later at Bridgehampton, on Long Island. By chance, Newman’s transporter pulled in next to my van. It was a cool fall day, and I pushed too hard before my race car’s tires warmed up and spun out in a climbing turn at the end of the back straight. I hit something hard with the left rear tire, bending the wheel badly.
My mechanic and I checked the damage to see if we could run that afternoon. As we were starting to work, I looked over and saw Newman staring at me with just a hint of a grin. “That doesn’t look too bad.” Then, with a friendly smile, “Anything my guys can do, they’re yours. We’ve got all the tools you need.”
I knew he didn’t recall our brief earlier meeting – he was simply offering help to a fellow driver, no questions asked. He turned and walked away, but he was no longer alone. There were about twenty or thirty fans, and I thought that two of them looked like bodyguards. The world was finding out that Paul Newman was racing.
My career took me away from racing for a while, but several years later, I entered a late-season national race at Watkins Glen. It was one of the last qualifying events before the runoffs, full of drivers looking for a few points, including Paul Newman.
What a difference a few years had made. The media had discovered who P. L. Newman really was. The motorhome with the Bob Sharp logo had a single door on the right side, surrounded by hundreds of fans with cameras. When it was time for a practice session, someone drove the race car as close to the motorhome door as possible. The door opened, and Newman appeared with three or four men who pushed their way through the crowd to the car.
Paul Newman’s celebrity had taken something valuable away from him – a chance to be like anyone else and enjoy something he loved.
After a few years of this, Newman sharply cut back his racing in the SCCA and became part owner of a CART team. Cause and effect? I can’t prove it, but I’d put money on it.
His fans loved him so much, but they killed one of the things he loved best.
P. L. Newman, racing driver, philanthropist, and movie actor, passed away in September at the age of eighty-three.