Paul Newman Was Much More Than a “Racing Enthusiast”
The late Paul Newman, whose first car was a 1937 Packard that whisked him from Wisconsin to New York for his early career on Broadway’s stages, began his love affair with auto racing and motorsports while training at the Watkins Glen Racing School for the part of Frank Capua in the 1969 film, Winning, where he portrayed a rising star on the race circuit who dreams of winning the Indianapolis 500. Newman caught the racing bug…hard…but he did it much like his acting. Deliberately. Methodically. Studiously. Newman found the feeling of control and self-responsibility behind the wheel of a racecar intoxicating, but without Winning as part of his body of work, Newman doubts he would have taken up motorsports as he said in an interview when asked. “I don’t think so, no. It was just good fortune that we started that project when we did. And I took to it very slowly…it happened at exactly the right time”.
Further film projects about racing followed. In 1971, Newman agreed to star in Once Upon a Wheel, a documentary about the history of racing. The hour long TV special starred Mario Andretti, Kirk Douglas, Hugh Downs, Dean Martin, Cesar Romero, and Dick Smothers. It wasn’t too much later that Newman participated in his first professional race, at Thompson International Speedway in Connecticut, at the age of forty-seven in a Datsun. From then into the ’90s Newman was closely associated with Datsuns, even appearing in commercials promoting the company. In 1983, the Paul Newman Version R30 Skyline was released to commemorate Nissan’s association with the actor. The Newman Skyline was simply a top spec GT-ES turbo with signature embroidery and decals.
As a racer Newman was affiliated with Bob Sharp Racing (Datsun and Nissan), competing in a 510 and 280ZX, and later with Dick Barbour Racing (Porsche). Newman narrowly missed first in class in 1979 at the 24 Hours of LeMans, in a Porsche 935 sponsored by Beverly Hills Porsche/Audi. Previously, Newman piloted a Ferrari 365 GTB/4 in the 1977 endurance race of the same name, and helped pilot it to a very respectable fifth-place finish.
He notably won his class at the 1995 24 Hours of Daytona in a Sharp/Newman Nissan 300ZX, making Newman at age 70 the oldest driver to win a major professional racing event. He also tried the off-road Baja 1000 in 2004 and was in the 24 Hours of Daytona again as recently as 2005. For a time he owned a Can-Am racing team, but perhaps Newman is best known for his role with Newman/Haas Racing. Starting in 1983 Carl Haas’s racing and business acumen combined with Newman’s star power attracted not only some of the best drivers in the world, but also some of the world’s wealthiest sponsors, from Texaco to McDonalds.
Newman also owned several interesting road cars including a 300SL Gullwing, like Sophia Loren, and an early Porsche 911S; but as he noted in a late interview, his tastes off the track verged to the more mundane. But of all his daily drivers, he may best be known for a few of the modified ones. In 1963, Newman bought a red Volkswagen Beetle Convertible. Some time after, he took the car to legendary racecar builder Jerry Eisert. In Eisert’s hands, the Newman Indy VW received a sport-tuned suspension and a mid-mounted Ford Windsor V8 engine that developed approximately 300 hp. The unit was coupled to a 5-speed ZF gearbox that most likely came from a Ford GT40.
The actor also had a predilection for the Volvo marque. He famously owned a 740 wagon that sported a turbocharged V-6 taken from a Buick Grand National. While the car was fast, it was not as well-sorted as possible. Newman didn’t give up on the Volvo “sleeper” concept, however, and subsequently came across Converse Engineering, which pioneered (and still does) shoehorning Ford’s V-8 into rear-wheel-drive Volvos. Newman commissioned Converse to build another Volvo, this time with a Ford based powerplant. Rather than a 740, Newman used a Volvo 960 wagon for the base, and power was further increased with the addition of a Supercharger. Newman also managed to rope two of his friends into buying into his vision: David Letterman and businessman Ian Warburg.
One of Newman’s last roles was in the animated feature Cars as the voice of Doc Hudson, a 1951 Hudson Hornet. Remembered for his acting, when his name comes up today, Newman is often referred to as a “racing enthusiast”. But his body of work on the track, including the creation of one of the most successful racing teams in the sport, and the special road cars that only a Petrolista could possibly understand say otherwise.