Paul Newman wanted to be a great athlete - he just never found a sport in which he could excel. Then, while filming the movie "Winning" in 1969 at age 43, he discovered auto racing.
"I was never a very graceful person. The only time I ever really feel coordinated is when I dance with Joanne," he once told The Associated Press, referring to his wife, Joanne Woodward. "And that's not my doing. But when I'm behind the wheel of race car, I feel competent and in charge. It's something I really enjoy."
Newman, an Oscar-winning actor, entrepreneur, philanthropist, activist and race car driver, died of cancer Friday at his farmhouse near Westport, Conn., publicist Jeff Sanderson said.
"Paul Newman, a real American hero," NASCAR team owner Jack Roush said.
Newman spoke of his passion for racing during a 1995 interview with the AP shortly after he was part of the winning team in the Daytona 24-Hours sports car endurance race. He was 70 years old at the time. No one remotely close to that age had ever won in that event.
Newman could be terse and distant in his rare interviews, but he would light up when he talked about his favorite sport.
"I don't like talking about acting because that's business and pretty boring," Newman told the AP another time. "And politics can get you in trouble. But I'll always talk about racing because the people are interesting and fun, the sport is a lot more exciting than anything else I do, and nobody cares that I'm an actor. I wish I could spend all my time at the racetrack."
When Newman decided to get into racing, it was more than just being in the cockpit that interested him. He became a car owner in the Can-Am Series, campaigning cars for a number of top drivers, including Indianapolis 500 winners Al Unser, Danny Sullivan and Bobby Rahal, as well as Formula One champion Keke Rosberg.
After competing against team owner Carl Haas in Can-Am, Newman formed a partnership with the Chicago businessman, starting Newman/Haas Racing in 1983 and joining the CART series.
With Mario Andretti hired as its first driver, the team was an instant success. Throughout the last 26 years, the team - now known as Newman/Haas/Lanigan and part of the IndyCar Series - has won 107 races and eight series championships with drivers like Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Cristiano da Matta, Paul Tracy and Sebastien Bourdais.
"He was just a great guy and truly loved everything about racing," Michael Andretti said.
Despite a heavy schedule, Newman came to the track as often as possible. He tried without much success to keep a low profile as he roamed pit lane on his motor scooter or sat at the team's pit box, his baseball cap pulled low over those famous blue eyes, a pair of reading glasses - used for reading the timing and scoring monitor - dangling from a string around his neck.
"Paul and I have been partners for 26 years and I have come to know his passion, humor and, above all, his generosity," Haas said. "Not just economic generosity, but generosity of spirit. His support of the team's drivers, crew and the racing industry is legendary. His pure joy at winning a pole position or winning a race exemplified the spirit he brought to his life and to all those that knew him."
Newman's many charitable works extended to racing. Kyle Petty and his wife founded a camp for chronically ill children in North Carolina, modeled on Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang camps.
"He was dedicated to giving back to those less fortunate and with each child we see, we honor his spirit and vision," Petty said.
Two-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart competed against Newman in several sports car races.
"He set the bar, not only with his giving, but in how he gave. ... Paul did it right, and he did it with class," Stewart said.
After playing the role of an Indy 500 driver in "Winning," Newman found he couldn't get the driving bug out of his system. And he found he had a real talent for the sport.
Newman began racing sports cars in amateur divisions and won his first race in 1972 at Thompson, Conn., in a Lotus Elan. He earned the first of four SCCA National title in 1976 in the D-Production class and also won championships in the 1979 C-Production category, as well as taking the GT-1 championship in 1985 and 1986.
His first professional victory came in the rain at an SCCA trans-Am race at Brainerd, Minn., in 1982.
When Newman arrived in the media center at Brainerd for the winner's interview, a bottle of champagne in hand and a huge smile on his face, he found just two writers waiting for him.
"Where is everybody? I guess I'll have to win something a little bigger than this to get any attention," he said.
Newman added another Trans-Am win at his home track in Lime Rock, Conn., in 1986.
He often said one of the things that attracted him most to racing was the camaraderie in the pits and paddock. And Newman loved a good practical joke, even when it was played on him.
During a race in Elkhart Lake, Wis., several drivers conspired to pull a fast one on him. They hired a bus and sent it to a home for the aged, telling the residents that actor Paul Newman had invited them for lunch and a day at the track. About 40 women jumped at the offer.
Newman was at the track when a crewman came in and said, "Paul, there's a bunch of people out here who say they're supposed to have lunch with you." Newman came out of his motor coach smiling and played the role of gracious host at a hastily arranged lunch for the adoring ladies.
When the Indy Racing League was formed, Newman/Haas stuck with CART and Newman tried numerous times during the 12-year split to broker a deal to get the rival organizations back under one banner.
Once, when a deal appeared close in the late 1990s, Newman summoned a writer to his motor coach at Portland, Ore., and demanded: "Write about this now and we'll put some pressure on these people to get this done," he said, with a profanity tossed in to underline his point.
It finally did get done, but not until this past February.
Newman was thrilled by the unification, even though it was the IRL's IndyCar Series that wound up the winner of the internecine warfare.
"It's about time," Newman said. "Now, we can tell potential sponsors we have a future and mean it, and we can develop great, young drivers that will attract new fans to the sport. The future looks much brighter now."
As he passed his 80th birthday, he remained in demand. He managed to combine acting with racing by providing the voice of a crusty 1951 car in the 2006 Disney-Pixar hit, "Cars."
Newman drove his last race as a professional in the 2005 Daytona 24-Hours and even ran some hot laps around his beloved Lime Rock Park in August.
As the years went on, people kept asking him when he was going to quit racing. His reply was standard.
"That's what Joanne keeps asking me," he said.
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