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Go See Adam Carolla’s Movie About Paul Newman and Race Cars – Wired
Posted: Saturday, April 18, 2015
Adam Carolla has made a movie about Paul Newman’s love for race cars. You probably don’t want to see it, but you should.
Most people know Newman spent his life in Hollywood. When the celebrated actor died in 2008, at the age of 83, he had appeared in a whopping 62 films and been nominated for nine Oscars. What they may not know is that in the middle of all that, he somehow found time to land a class win in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race and clinch four Sports Car Club of America championships.
Actors who race cars are nothing new. James Garner hit Baja in an Oldsmobile 442, Dick Smothers drove Corvettes at Le Mans. Patrick Dempsey still runs Porsches there, likely to the chagrin of some studio insurance agent. But in garage-speak, Newman really “got it.” He found the sport through his day job, fell in love with it, and couldn’t let go. He understood what makes it a great and complex pastime, and just as important, became legitimately good at it—no small task when you’re talking 200 mph at Le Mans.
Filming Winning introduced Newman to motorsport the way other stars have gotten hooked: Director hires actor for car movie; actor discovers he loves racing; actor decides to get serious. And while the love affairs are all different, most end predictably. Months or years later, drained of money or desire, the actor bails out.
Newman never bailed. He didn’t start driving competitively until his 40s, but at the age of 70, in 1995, he snagged a class win at the 24 Hours of Daytona. Nine years later he entered the grueling Baja 1000. A year after that, he was back at Daytona. On the surface, this sounds repulsive—an aging, indulgent millionaire playing fantasy camp in a life-threatening profession. But there was far more to it.
It was an odd kind of right that this gifted, good-looking man refused to overshadow the sport for personal gain.
“Racing is what Newman did,” Lerner says. “Acting just paid the bills. He bought into the ethic, and insofar as he could, he lived the racing life.” When he realized he was too old to run at pinnacle of the sport, “he took on a second career as team owner, often sinking his own money into the organization. He wasn’t a poseur who raced to gratify his ego, and he wasn’t a wanker who was a second or two off the pace.”
This is why people in this business love the guy. Racers respect nothing so much as passion for the sport mixed with speed and humility, and the man had all of that. Former Trans-Am champion Tommy Kendall told Stone and Lerner, “I think Paul felt that a big part of his career in acting was dumb-ass luck. Racing gives nothing to anyone. And because he worked so hard at it … he genuinely admired the guys like Mario [Andretti], who were really world-class. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and this guy is the best there ever was? To be the prettiest person ever? So what?”
And make no mistake, getting good at this—even with the resources of an A-lister—is far from easy. “Everyone knows about [Winning],” says Sam Posey, a veteran Indy 500 driver and former ABC Sports commentator. “But they pass over the next phase because it looked so boring—a boxy little sedan doing lap after lap at Lime Rock.” Newman had no talent at all, Posey says, but unlike a lot of actor-drivers, he had the humility to begin in slow cars, sticking with it beyond the point of frustration. “It was the key to his eventual success. He wasn’t a natural, but he was both patient and aggressive. When I drove with him, he’d come into the pits and ask how a certain turn was taken, then nod and do exactly what I suggested. It was as if he’d been handed a script. He was teaching himself how to drive, but in a highly unusual way—acting out the role of a racing driver.”
For me, as a quiet, marginally talented amateur racer growing up in the middle of the country, Newman helped something click. His approach did much to legitimize what I loved and why I loved it. We’re bombarded with Stars: They’re Just Like Us! moments, but Newman seemed to make the same calls that my dad or I would have made, given the same opportunities. His cars rarely featured his name or flashy graphics, just his initials quietly placed on a door or roof. When the Indy Car teams he co-owned (but didn’t drive for) couldn’t make sponsorship, he reached into his pocket to help. He preferred Lime Rock’s homey Connecticut paddock and club-like atmosphere to flashier locales. And chiefly, he seemed embarrassed, even a little irritated, when media focused on him instead of those he viewed as more talented. It was an odd kind of right that this gifted, good-looking man refused to overshadow the sport for personal gain. That he was just another guy swept up in the dirt, guts, and quiet labors that make racing great.
The unfortunate truth is that most people won’t see Carolla’s film, or even know it exists. That’s not his fault—racing movies are typically box office poison. But Carolla, a car collector and vintage racer, may not mind. He owns several of Newman’s old competition cars. He’s made no secret of his admiration for the man, and like Newman, he eschews publicity for his hobbies. He rarely shares his collection with the public, preferring instead to demonstrate it at vintage races and point to his heroes.
Which means that he, too, gets it. Based solely on the trailer, his documentary appears to be a hell of a film—a look into a complex man’s genuine humility and deep-seated love for something. But also a great man’s refusal to coast on circumstance or good fortune. The appeal there transcends fame or any hobby or subject matter.
“At one point,” Lerner says, “I spoke with Mark Schomann, a race engineer who helped out Newman on the side. ‘It was so funny,’ he said, ‘for me to hear all this hoopla about Paul Newman, the actor, dying. Because the truth is, now that he’s gone, I realize that I always thought of him as Paul Newman, the race-car driver, who pretended he was an actor. He wasn’t. He didn’t hang out in Hollywood. He was a race-car guy who wanted to drink a beer and have his foot on a tire, and occasionally, he’d go, ‘Oh, shit, I’ve got to get to work and do a movie.””