Paul Newmans passion for motorsports ..

started, flourished at Indianapolis

Paul Newman was introduced to motor racing in 1968 while filming a movie at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and that blossomed into a 40-year passion for the sport that included co-ownership of one of the most powerful teams in the Indianapolis 500 of the last 25 years and his own successful driving career.

Newman, an Academy Award-winning actor and world-renowned activist and humanitarian, died Friday, Sept 26 at his home in Westport, Conn. He was 83.

Between 1983 and 1995, cars entered by the partnership of Newman and Carl Haas established themselves as a major force in the Indianapolis 500. While never able to pull off a win, the team did score a pair of strong second-place finishes, with Mario Andretti in 1985 and with Michael Andretti in 1991, plus a third in the hands of defending Formula One World Champion Nigel Mansell in 1993.

Time and time again, it appeared that a Newman-Haas driver was destined to win the "500." In 1987, Mario Andretti led 170 of the first 177 laps from the pole, only to drop out late with an ignition problem. It was one of 13 occasions on which a Newman-Haas driver would lead the “500,” and one of five in which their laps-led total would be greater than by any other driver in the race.

There are three separate instances, 1989, 1992 and 1995, in which Michael Andretti was forced out while leading. The most devastating loss came in 1992, when he was eliminated after having led 160 of the 189 laps he completed. Between 1984 and 1995, Mario and Michael Andretti combined for an amazing 773 laps in the lead, Mansell accounting for another 34.

In 2004, after several years’ absence, the Newman-Haas team returned, former pole winner Bruno Junqueira extending that record by leading an additional 16 laps on his way to a fifth-place finish.

It seems quite remarkable that there should have been so little turnover on the Newman-Haas driver roster at Indianapolis, Paul Tracy in 1995 being the only driver other than Mansell and the Andrettis between 1983 and 1995. In more recent years, Junqueira, Sebastien Bourdais, Justin Wilson and Graham Rahal have added their names.

After a 12-year absence, Newman personally returned to the Indianapolis 500 in 2008 with his team after the reunification of American open-wheel racing.

“It’s good to be back at Indianapolis,” Newman said in May 2008. “It brings back a lot of fond memories. We’ve won eight championships and come in second twice at Indianapolis but never won the ‘500.’ It’s wonderful to be running against Roger (Penske) and (Bobby) Rahal, and Michael (Andretti) and all those guys. It’s comfortable.”

The Indy Racing League and Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2008 designated the Association of Hole in the Wall Camps as a charitable partner of both organizations. Hole in the Wall Camps was founded by Newman in 1988, expanding his dream of providing a recreational and therapeutic camping experience for children facing serious illnesses and life-threatening conditions. It was one of countless philanthropic efforts by Newman.

“There are a couple of things I have great affection for,” Newman said in May 2008. “One of those, as you all know, is automobile racing. The other is to care in some ways for kids who have been less fortunate than I have. And to be able to have this coming together of two organizations working together to that purpose is a home run for me. An absolute home run.”

So how did Paul Newman become involved with the Indianapolis 500?

An extremely private man, the Oscar-winning Newman quietly admitted that he had never paid any particular attention to motorsports until the summer of 1968, when he shot scenes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 1969 motion picture "Winning." It started out merely as the latest project in which he happened to be involved, but typically, he totally immersed himself in the role, and evidently something within it rubbed off.

An early indication came when he seemed to bond with Rodger Ward, the two-time "500" winner who served as the film's technical director and driver of the "camera car" for some of the on-track sequences. When Newman flew in for an exploratory visit during the spring, he stayed the night at Ward's home. Once back for the three weeks or so of shooting immediately following the "500," there was more than one occasion on which Newman was a dinner guest at the Ward household.

While virtually all of the "staged" on-track sequences (intercut with actual 1968 "500" race footage) were performed by a half a dozen or so then-current "500" drivers, the Bob Bondurant Driving School-trained Newman elected to waive the use of a stunt double. In the footage used from the actual race, the fictitious "Frank Capua" is really Bobby Unser on his way to winning the "500." In the majority of the close-up cockpit shots, however, the helmeted figure is actually Newman, matching the speed of the camera car driven by Ward, his new friend and coach.

When shooting at the track wrapped up at the beginning of July, United States Auto Club (USAC) Director of Competition Henry Banks went over to present Newman and fellow actor Robert Wagner with honorary USAC Championship driver licenses. Upon returning to the USAC office, Banks revealed, with amusement, that at the conclusion of the brief trackside ceremony, Newman had discreetly sidled up to him to inquire, "What do I have to do to get a real one of these?" to which Henry replied, "Run a lot and get back to us."

It transpired that Newman’s newfound interest was more than just a whim. It wasn't long before he began competing at Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) regional events, and doing so without fanfare as merely "P.L. Newman." He entered into a long-term relationship with a Connecticut neighbor, Bob Sharp, and he was to race Sharp-prepared cars for many years to come.

More than two decades later, when Sharp's son, Scott, qualified for his first "500" in 1994 and was being interviewed over the public address immediately thereafter, a delighted, but ever-private, Newman casually strolled into Scott's line of vision between the battery of photographers and gave the young driver a heartfelt thumbs-up. He had known Scott since he was a tot.

Newman had evidently already become somewhat of an insider by 1970. On the radio broadcast of the inaugural Ontario (California) 500 on Labor Day weekend, Newman surprised many by agreeing to a brief on-air interview. When asked if he was pulling for any particular driver to win, he replied, "Yes, Dan Gurney."

And why Gurney?

"Because I think he is going to retire soon," was PLN's surprising response.

Did he know something the rest of the world did not? He declined to elaborate, but only a matter of days later, Gurney confirmed Newman's prediction.

Newman's first SCCA victory as a driver came in 1972 with a Lotus Elan at Thompson, Conn., not far from his home. In 1976, he won his first of four SCCA championships, this one in D-Production. A title in C-Production followed in 1979, followed by a pair in the GT-1 category in 1985 and 1986. In 1982, he beat a stellar field of professionals to win the Trans-Am race at Brainerd, Minn., and he was to win a second Trans-Am event at Lime Rock, Conn., in 1986.

In 1977, Newman shared the fifth-place-finishing Ferrari 365 GTB4 with Elliot Forbes-Robinson and Milt Minter in the 24 Hours of Daytona, and in June 1979, he received considerable attention by teaming up with Dick Barbour and the German driver Rolf Stommelen to share the Porsche 935 which finished second in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Less than one month later, the same trio scored another second-place finish in the Six Hours of Watkins Glen in upstate New York.

In 1980, Newman entered into a partnership with longtime Lola distributor Haas to field a team in the Can-Am series, and in 1983 Newman-Haas made its debut at Indianapolis.

But Newman already had been involved with an Indianapolis entry before that.

In 1977, he was associated with a Bill Freeman entry for which the driver was to be "rookie" Forbes-Robinson, the very same "EFR" with whom Newman had shared the Ferrari at Daytona that January. The program, which had landed Caesars Palace as its sponsor, ran behind schedule, and Newman tried unsuccessfully to talk Dan Gurney into providing a car in which EFR could take his "rookie" test.

It was all academic. The hastily prepared Freeman car did not arrive at the track until shortly after lunchtime on the afternoon of the final qualifying day, and with Newman looking on, not even the legendary gold-helmeted "gunfighter" Bob Harkey had time to sort it out and get it up to qualifying speed.

There would be much better days ahead.

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