Monday, October 6, 2008

Butch Cassidy Behind the Wheel


I cannot recall exactly when I first met Paul Newman. It was the late 1960s or early ’70s, and the world had gone car crazy.

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Associated Press

Paul Newman, who died Sept. 26, after winning a 1982 race at Lime Rock in Connecticut.

Henry Ford had tried to buy Ferrari and been rebuffed, then spent millions on the GT program to beat Ferrari at its own game, and won the 24-hour race at LeMans.

Detroit was pushing out thousands of dangerously fast street racers like the Pontiac GTO, the Plymouth GTX and the Dodge Hemis — midsize cars with seven-liter motors originally developed for trucks or Cadillac limousines.

People like Phil Hill and Southern California’s Dan Gurney were beating the Europeans at their own game, Formula One racing.

While growing up in Rockland County, N.Y., about the closest we would ever get to a Grand Prix was climbing the trees around the Watkins Glen racetrack that hosted America’s lone major international race. (We could not afford the $20-plus tickets.)

But closer to home, we had our own little hideaway — a lesser-known but nonetheless beautiful track called Lime Rock Park in northeastern Connecticut.

At just 1.6 miles long and maybe 8 or 10 turns, with no bleachers, it was hardly Formula One material.

Lime Rock, in the bucolic Berkshires, had a family atmosphere. After the races, children were free to mingle with the drivers in the pits. The lucky ones were invited to an after-race party at the big barn that dominated the end of the front straight.

More often than not, that party was hosted by a handsome driver named Paul, who usually rolled out a few kegs of his beloved Budweiser.

Only after watching “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” a year or two later did I realize that the guy I remembered driving his Triumph TR4 at Lime Rock was Paul Newman, who took on the entire Bolivian army in perhaps the greatest finale of any movie ever made.

When he died on Sept. 26, almost everyone mentioned that he was the co-owner of the top-ranked Newman-Haas IndyCar/CART team that had sponsored Mario Andretti, the Indianapolis 500 and Formula One champion, as well as his CART champion son Michael and other well-known racers, like Paul Tracy.

That was only part of Newman’s story. He was deeply involved in the business of winning races as a car owner, but he never quit driving. He was a national champion who turned professional in the Sports Car Club of America’s Trans-Am series, the oldest professional racing series for hot cars like Mustangs, Camaros, Nissans and Porsches in the United States.

In the mid-’80s, I ran into him at the Long Beach Grand Prix, in which his Newman-Haas team was competing. He was driving his de facto factory Nissan in the Trans-Am race that opened the weekend’s racing.

It was not one of his better outings — in those days, the Trans-Am had what was called Fast Five qualifying, a variant on the Indy practice of allowing only the fastest drivers on the first day on the pole, with everyone else competing for slots behind them. Newman’s Nissan had some problem and, despite being one of the fastest cars on the track, was relegated to no better than the sixth spot on the grid.

That piqued Newman’s pride, and as the pack roared down Long Beach’s Shoreline Drive for the rolling start at better than 150 miles per hour, Newman decided he would take his rightful space in the front by squeezing by the lesser Mustangs and Camaros before the first turn.

The result was predictable. Like many a racer before him, he was out of control going into the first turn and could not brake in time. The resulting crash took out many of the cars ahead of him, including a few of the championship leaders. Despite the havoc, he never backed down. And once the wreckage was cleared and the race restarted, he walked down the pit road apologizing to each team whose chance he had upset.

What was anyone going to say to Butch Cassidy?

Several years later, as the vice president for production at Walt Disney Pictures, I was assigned to oversee what we called the Paul Newman account. Disney had just made the hit movie “Color of Money” with Paul and Tom Cruise, and had entered into an overall deal with him.

My job was to interact with Paul, find projects for him to star in or otherwise make sure he felt loved. It was not as easy as it sounded. As his lawyer pointed out to me one day, “It’ll have to be a hell of a project to get him away from his addiction to automobiles.”

It was true, and yet another reason I will always remember him as a young driver at Lime Rock, his face covered with the grime of hours and hours of racing, hoisting a cold one and saluting us all for a great day — even if we were too young to drink.

Peter McAlevey is a film producer and a former correspondent for Newsweek.

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