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Grand Prix

A Winning Attitude

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- Perhaps you have not made up your mind about this race. Perhaps you think it is a Grand Prix, and perhaps you think it is only an Okay Prix. Perhaps you can take Prix or leave it.

Perhaps you are lost in the noise, the relentless, overwhelming assault on the eardrums. Perhaps you are confused by the unfamiliarity of the drivers, who make pit road look as international as the start of the Olympic luge competition. Perhaps you are withholding judgment on the sight of missiles flying through the streets of St. Petersburg.

It is for you that we turn to the following expert testimony.

The Grand Prix is cool.

Paul Newman says so.

What more argument do you need? Newman is, of course, the coolest guy in the room and, perhaps, on the planet. Really. Who has ever been cooler than Newman? Who has accomplished more in as many areas of life?

"For anybody who has an affinity toward sex, this is a perfect way to spend an afternoon," Newman says in a rare interview. "These cars are absolutely sensual. Guests have been known to smuggle parts of those cars up to their motel rooms at night."

When Newman leans back and flashes that famous grin of his, let's face it, the discussion is closed. Who is going to debate cool with Newman? When Newman says something is cool, after all, he's backed by a chorus of Butch Cassidy and Cool Hand Luke, of "Fast" Eddie Felson and Henry Gondorff, of Judge Roy Bean and Lew Harper and Brick Pollitt and the rest.

He is 78 now, and this sport still surges through his veins as if it is taking hairpin turns. Newman arrived in St. Petersburg early Saturday, and he darned near sprinted to the pits to be with his team.

Once there, he went from computer to computer, checking out data, soaking up atmosphere, breathing in fumes. When the day's qualifying was over, Newman ran -- that's right, ran -- to ride a lap with Mario Andretti.

"I'm happy to have a pulse," Newman said. "And the thing that makes my pulse go faster is the racetrack."

For Newman, it has been that way since 1968, when he fell in love with racing during the making of the movie Winning. For the record, Newman also made movies about boxing, about hockey, about billiards and, well, about bank robbery. None of those pursuits grabbed him the way racing did.

"I tried all those things," Newman said. "This is the only sport I tried where I was graceful. Check out my wife's feet. You'll find out that I'm not a very good dancer either. I skied. I played tennis, squash."

It was racing that captivated Newman, however. And the years have not lessened the hold of the sport on him.

Late in the day, Newman sat in the expansive Newman/Haas trailer, picking at a steak sandwich. He peered over his sunglasses, carefully trying to put the magic of the sport into the language of those who do not know it.

"I'd say it's a lot like downhill skiing," Newman said. "In both, the speeds are extraordinary. Both work at the limit of adhesion. When it's beautiful, it has extraordinary grace. I don't know. The excitement of speed has always been part of man's heritage.

"This is the most demanding of it, certainly in America, the most demanding part of man's heritage. Not only do you run ovals, you run street races, road races. You get out there and you realize the apex is not a flat patch of grass, the apex is a corner and a concrete wall.

"There is an element of lunacy to it. Why would anybody want to go 160 and 170 mph between two ribbons of concrete with a margin of error of only 30 or 40 feet? You've gotta be nutso. A dumb fish wouldn't do that."

Ah, but racers would. And they'd tinker and probe and push to get an extra foot out of a second.

Yes, there can be a cost. Newman knows that, too. It was here, in 1987, that his teammate and close friend Jimmy Fitzgerald died in a single-car accident on the third lap of the race. Newman delivered the eulogy.

"I thought about him all the way down here," Newman said, quieter now. "He had more friends than anybody I knew, than anybody I have known. I think he also won more Sports Car Club of America races than anyone at that time.

"I think anyone who is involved with a sport that involves speeds understands (the acceptance of risk)," Newman said. "What you're after is that last ultimate bit of speed."

That's the thing about Newman. He always has thrown himself into his projects, be it acting (he has been nominated for his 10th Academy Award), racing or charity work.

"This silly food business," he calls it, but it isn't silly. So far, the proceeds from Newman's Own foods have donated $125-million to charity. He gives away 100 percent of all after-tax proceeds. How cool is $125-million?

"I take a little pride in the fact I have a company credit card," Newman said. "Last year, it had $200 on it. So I ain't skimmin' off the top. There are no stock options here, boy."

Newman talks about his Boggy Creek Gang, a camp for terminally ill children. There is one near Orlando, ones in Africa, France, Ireland, England, Iceland, China and Israel. He says ones are being built in Japan and California. The Pettys are building one in the Carolinas. This is what a little salad dressing, a little pasta sauce and a lot of proceeds can do.

"Go to one of these camps and watch the people who are caregivers there," he said. "Watch the guts of the kids who are sick. You see the best of what America has to offer. I'm saying it's better than government. I'm saying it's better than anything we do culturally.

"The spirit of holding out your hand toward those who are less fortunate has always been the best of what America does. It's better than any other attribute I can think of. And where it is lacking, it is the worst part of what we have. That goes for Enron, that goes for Tyco and all those greedy b-------."

Outside the trailer, the roar of engines resumes, and Newman vaults to his feet and rushes to the window. He leans over you to watch the Barber Dodge cars go past on First Street S. (Suggested new name for First Street: Perdition.)

You remind Newman that it was a move to St. Petersburg for which his character was fighting in the comedy Slap Shot. His eyes widen momentarily, then he starts laughing.

"I had forgotten that," he said. "St. ... Petersburg ... Florida."

He looks older now, of course. Who doesn't? But his passion for his sport, and for his profession, remain. In a way, he said, they have fed off of each other.

"I think that passion is the thing that makes you go into decline," Newman said. "Joanne (Woodward, his wife of 45 years) said that. She said the passion I had for racing bled back into acting."

That's fair. For 12 seasons, Newman turned down parts because he didn't want to give up racing during his summers. In 1984, he did nothing but race.

His partner, Carl Haas, once said that if Newman had started younger, he could have been extremely successful as a driver. Newman dismisses the idea.

"I got in at exactly the right time," he said. "I was in a position to get the best equipment, and there weren't any expectations on me."

He was 43 when he began. He was 47 when he won his first race, 48 when he and Haas formed their partnership, 68 victories ago. When he was 70, he drove No. 70 at Daytona. When he was 75, he drove No. 75.

You ask: When he began, did people close to him wonder about what he was doing?

"They didn't wonder then," he said. "Now they wonder."

And he laughed.

Loud. Long.

Cool.

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