Paul Newman, Racing, and a Life Well Lived

Paul Newman was one of a kind. The late, great actor and philanthropist lived a life worth remembering. And a new documentary about his oft-forgotten second career as a successful professional racecar driver does an excellent job of reminding us all of that fact.

Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman is an 83-minute behind-the-scenes look at one of the most famous human beings of the 20th century doing the two things he loved more than any other in this world: racing and winning.

The younger of two brothers from a middle-class family in the suburbs of Cleveland, Newman bravely served his country in World War II—even lying about his colorblindness in an attempt to become a pilot—before pursuing a career in acting. He studied under the legendary Lee Strasberg in New York and met his eventual wife of fifty years, Joanne Woodward, on the set of their film The Long, Hot Summer in 1957.

In 1968, Newman and Woodward would co-star in another movie together that would put their lives on a very different trajectory. The film was called Winning and its plot centered on a racecar driver named Frank Capua (Newman) who is hell-bent on coming in first at the Indianapolis 500. To prepare for the role, the studio sent Paul and his character’s archrival, portrayed by Robert Wagner, to the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Arizona.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Paul Newman became a racing addict. He bought cars. He sought the expertise, wisdom, and experience of professional drivers and mechanics. He spent countless hours on any track that would have him. What started as an intense hobby eventually became a way of life for the wildly popular leading man.

The Racing Life of Paul Newman picks up the story here and takes the audience into the mind of a man who, at the age of 46, embarked on a career in one of the most competitive, dangerous industries on the planet. When most drivers were considering retirement, Newman was a rookie racing against men who could have been his sons.

Directed by comedian Adam Carolla—himself a car enthusiast and amateur racer—Winning is a delightful unveiling of this part of Paul Newman’s life that even some of his biggest fans never knew anything about. Interviews with Newman’s famous friends, such as Robert Redford and Jay Leno, reveal the same things the viewer hears from Newman’s track buddies and business partners: the man loved racing more than acting. This is all he wanted to talk about. It was what he wanted to define him as a man.

Certainly Paul Newman was more than this. He was arguably the best American actor of the 20th century. He was kind and altruistic, donating all of the proceeds from his Newman’s Own food products and salad dressings—some $400 million as of 2014—to charity. He was fiercely loyal to his friends. He was devoted to the same woman for half of a century.

But there is no way around it: the guy loved racing. He was a racer. And he yearned to be at the track, amongst the folks who did not think of him as an A-list celebrity, where things like respect and merit were earned, not decided upon by Hollywood gossip bloggers.

Newman purposely started in the lowest ranks of professional racing, selecting a Datsun car to run in that was anything but fancy. He wanted to pay his dues and learn every component of what it takes to be a championship-winning driver. Many of the other drivers initially resented him, assuming that Newman was amusing himself by dabbling in racing between movie roles. But his persistence, sincerity, and work ethic won out.

In the end, he became a four-time Car Club of America champion himself and his Newman/Haas Racing team boasted an impressive roster of drivers (i.e. Mario Andretti) and champions of its own.

At one point in the film, Newman admits, “I always wanted to be a jock. I wanted to find something that I could be graceful at. I tried skiing and boxing and other things. Behind the wheel of a car, on that track, is the only place I’ve ever felt graceful.”

May we all be so lucky to find such a place.

Whether you care about racecar driving or not, Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman is worth your time.

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