Paul Newman has died. I had the good fortune of meeting him a couple times at the race track on Belle Isle, in 1996 and 1998. And there’s a story that predates my involvement with SCCA but gives another idea into the character of the man.
First part of the CART race, 1996. It’s been raining all day but has just tapered off. Newman-Haas drivers Christian Fittipaldi and Michael Andretti have *the* wet setup and are running off and hiding from the field. I’m on the yellow flag at Turn 11, and see a flash of red over my shoulder. Our communicator asks him to step back a bit due to the color of his jacket, and I get a chance to turn and look — it’s Paul Newman (Turn 11 was right next to the CART paddock that year). Paul asks J.O., our communicator, if the rain is going to stay. J.O. tells him "Nope, looks like it’s clearing." Newman: "Damn! We’ve got these guys covered if it stays wet!" (They had ’em covered anyway. Mikey won, Christian was 2nd).
1998. Working Turn 3 on the year they extended that part of the track. I’m working cross-track safety on the inside of the corner during the Neon Celebrity Challenge race on Saturday afternoon, when Newman and Carl Haas ride up on scooters to watch one of their friends in the Neon race. Carl stays on his scooter, but Newman comes up to watch with me at the "safety hole" in the fence where I’m standing. One of the Detroit Grand Prix Association crowd-control workers starts to approach with a pen and a piece of paper. I quietly waved him off — I’d heard Newman didn’t sign autographs, but didn’t want him to have to be the bad guy. Newman says to me "Thanks. I stopped signing autographs after some guy followed me into the men’s room at a fancy restaurant in New York and thrust a piece of paper and a pen under my face while I was taking a piss! Can you believe that shit? I was so shocked I pissed on my shoes." Shortly after that, one of the charity drivers nailed a seagull on the track and K, then my fiance`, had to go retrieve the carcass. Newman: "Wow. she didn’t leave a feather out there." Me: "That’s my fiance, K. She’s very thorough." Newman winked and said "Lucky you." Later, K says "Oh, sure, I get a dead seagull and you get Paul Newman!"
The last story is one from early on in his Club Racing efforts, in the early 1970s. At a race at Nelson Ledges, in NE Ohio, Newman rolled his car and came to rest upside-down, hanging from the belts, and some oil dripped onto the hot exhaust and started a small fire. He said he was hanging there, wondering how the hell he was going to get out of this one, when an SCCA corner worker reached into the car, held him, popped the belts, and pulled him out, while another put out the oil fire. Couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. Well, like a lot of drivers, he figured the corner workers were being paid to work the track — and when he learned that not only were they not paid, but they also paid all their own expenses for getting to and from, and staying at, the race weekends, in exchange for a sandwich at lunch and maybe a bit of dinner at the worker party at the end of the day, he made a point of making sure the end-of-day worker party at any race he participated in was well-supplied with food and appropriate beverages (yes, including adult beverages. The man *was* friends with Augie Busch and he and his race teams were often sponsored by Budweiser!). He didn’t seek any recognition for this, he just thought it was proper to do right by the volunteer workers who make the races happen.
Lots of Newman memories making the rounds, lots of quotes. I remember one other thing he said in at DGP in ’98: "I love being at the race track. Any race track. Here, I get to be me, just another one of the racers. Apart from my home, the track is as real as it gets."
I won’t even pretend that Paul Newman was my friend any more than he was a friend to every SCCA worker he ever met, but…. damn. Newman was supposed to just keep going. Too good a man to die.
Tonight, I raise my glass to an excellent driver and a true gentleman. There will be a "PLN" on the car at the next race.