Butch Cassidy the Race Driver - Part 2
By Mark Cole
Click here for 'Butch Cassidy the Race Driver - Part 1'
Being disenchanted with Haas, in 1981, on Green’s advice, Paul Newman (PLN) switched to March-Chevrolet, and Teo Fabi took four wins and again Newman Racing finished 2nd in the points.
His final CanAm season was 1982, running Danny Sullivan, but only one win came, in the last race at Caesar’s Palace. CanAm was coming to an end, its glory years over, so PLN was looking for new opportunities, although he continued his own driving with Bob Sharp, taking his first TransAm win at Brainerd in 1982.
Indycar was now on the rocks too, team owners splitting from USAC by setting up CART Champ Car. This caught Newman’s attention, and in 1983 he joined forces with Haas to create the most successful team seen in American racing. Newman-Haas would go on to take seven titles between 1984 and 2000, with Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Cristiano da Matta, and four of them back-to-back with Sebastian Bourdais.
It had been a shaky start, though. Newman still had a grudge against Haas, but Paul’s friend Mario Andretti suggested to him he team up with Haas. “No way in hell, Carl,” said PLN when Haas put it to him. “But what if Mario was driving?” asked Haas. “Where would you like us to meet?” came the instant response…
PLN continued to notch up his own driving successes, winning the SCCA’s G-1 championships in both 1985 and 1986, and a second professional TransAm win would come with the Newman-Sharp Nissan at Lime Rock in 1986, at the age of 61. But there would be several more seasons before he started to wind down from regular weekend racing. Newman-Sharp took on Tom Cruise and Jim Fitzgerald as PLN’s stablemates, but Fitzy was killed in the season-ending St Petersburg Grand Prix, when his Nissan 300ZX hit a concrete wall.
Cruise, with whom PLN had starred in The Color of Money (and for which Newman earned his only Oscar) was quick, but frequently crashed, and recalls, “Paul was warm and down-to-earth away from the movies. All he wanted to do was kick my butt on the racetrack.” Tom would go on to make the NASCAR film Days of Thunder, and even today continues to be one of Hollywood’s biggest-pulling stars.
1990 would be the final year for Newman-Sharp, having switched to Oldsmobile following Nissan’s withdrawal in 1989 after a 20-year relationship. During that time PLN had seen Bob’s son Scott Sharp grow into one of America’s finest sportscar racers, occasionally partnering Paul in TransAm.
Paramount Studios, for whom Paul had just finished filming Nobody’s Fool, gave him a 70th birthday present in 1995 – a GTS Mustang #70 to run in the Daytona 24-Hours. Ford NASCAR legend Jack Roush ran the car, and PLN was to share it with Mark Martin, Tommy Kendall and Michael Brockman.
Kendall recalls, “He was now 70, and didn’t feel he would be fast enough getting out of the car at stops, so he told me, ‘Just grab me and rip me out of the car.’ I was thinking, ‘This guy is a national treasure’, but he didn’t hold us up, the stops were pretty good, and it was him who was pushing that agenda.”
Paul didn’t want to drive at night, so Martin and Kendall handled the dark shifts, and the car was leading not only GTS, but running 3rd overall, “like the proverbial clock,” said Newman. Typically modest, he told the team he wouldn’t run the last hour, but leave it to the “youngsters”.
“But they insisted,” Roush remembers.
“He said I’m done, but I said no, this is your race car, this is your program, this is your name we’re under, you’ve got to be in it for the final hour. He got in, and he sucked it up. When he got out at the finish, he gave everybody in the team high fives – it was a great personal triumph for him.”
Several months later, Kendall was to show Newman a print-out of their lap times. “His average lap time was only a second over NASCAR star Martin’s. He was two seconds off me, but I was real sharp, at the top of my career at that time, and that was the kind of car I was driving every day.”
And Newman wasn’t done yet: in 1997 he raced a factory Panoz to an IMSA GTS 2nd place at his favourite track, Lime Rock, with Doc Bundy, and took in races in the 1999 US Ferrari Challenge – he just couldn’t stop, despite wife Joanne dropping hints that it was time he quit.
He created Paul Newman Racing with motoring writer Brockman, and they raced SCCA and TransAm with a Camaro and a C5 Corvette. He was back at Daytona Beach in 2000, days after his 75th birthday, to drive a GTU Porsche GT3R – running #75 - with Brockman, Gunnar Jeanette (whom Paul had mentored since he was 15) and Wayne Jackson. But it lost the engine at one-third distance.
There had been further 24-Hours outings, but the last was in 2005 - PLN now 80 - when Pixar studios sponsored him in a Ford-powered Daytona Prototype promoting his last movie, the animation Cars. PLN had voiced a ’51 Hudson Hornet, which mentored cocky youngster Lightning McQueen; the nod to his fellow actor/racer was not lost on audiences, although Pixar maintained it was in memory of Cars animator Glen McQueen.
“They wrote to me and asked if I wanted to play a ’51 Hornet racer, and I said, ‘Yes,’” PLN recalled at the time. “He was a retired NASCAR, which I never drove, but racing is racing. Anything that has four wheels and an engine that you can race is okay by me. As a team owner, my preference is for open-wheel racing. But as a driver, I race sportscars with fenders. I have no clear bias one way or the other.”
The team had wanted #80 for its star’s birthday, but that had already been allocated, so they settled for #79+1. Things didn’t start off well when Newman spun during testing and the car caught fire.
My last interview with him went much as the earlier ones.
“Paul, you have always told us what a big talent you have in Sebastien Bourdais, and you gave him the CART Championship; now you’re driving with him.”
“A man has got to be somewhere…. yes, I’m a lucky fella.”
“We talked to you in 1995 after you won with the Mustang on your 70th birthday; 10 years later you’re still going strong.”
“I’m 10 years older too, and not going so strong. But we’ll see. Thank you for your interest.”
“When are you planning to stop?”
“When I embarrass myself, so hopefully no time soon…”
In the race, he was teamed with his winning Champ Car drivers Bourdais and Cristiano da Matta. “But it was a bad deal,” recalls Seb.”Those DP cars were really difficult to handle, because they were really rigid and visibility was not great. Paul didn’t feel comfortable in the car, and told us to go first. When he got into the car, it was close to dark, and they were bad conditions. He didn’t have any fun in it, it was a shame.” The car was crashed out on Lap 290, and with that Newman’s professional racing career came to an end.
Newman-Haas was to continue, and Bourdais marked up the team’s 100th Champ Car win at Portland in 2007; there were five more after that, bringing the record to 105 victories. Champ Car ended that year, and the Indycar Series reclaimed the high ground – Justin Wilson took a win for Newman/Haas/Lanigan at Detroit at the end of August 2008, but a month later, having been diagnosed with lung cancer, Newman was dead.
His legacy, apart from Newman’s Own mayonnaise and sauces, is the Hole in the Wall Gang, a charity for sick children named after his most memorable film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, providing them with summer camps.