The Truth About Paul Newman's Racing Career

In sports car racing, some drivers are referred to as gentleman drivers. These are amateur drivers who race as a hobby and often have the money to pay their way into races, which is why in some other series these drivers are often called pay drivers. It's sometimes used as a derogatory term, but especially in sports cars and GT racing, good gentleman drivers play an important role in those disciplines' Pro/Am classes, where driver lineups consist of both — you guessed it — professional drivers and amateurs.

Hollywood legend and philanthropist Paul Newman could have easily gotten into racing as a gentleman driver; he certainly had the money. Newman competed as a professional for a good part of his 35-year career as a driver, into his 80s, and won some major races, including a class win at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1995, when he was 70 years old (via Alt Driver).

Newman was also heavily involved in motor sports off-track. He co-owned Newman-Haas Racing which competed in both the CART and IndyCar series from 1983 to 2011.

Paul Newman was inspired to take up racing after doing a movie about it

According to Skoda Motorsport, Paul Newman had always been a car guy. He owned a series of Volkswagen Beatles, one of which he had retrofitted with a powerful Porche engine (via Driving). "It was a neat little bomb," he said in a 1970 interview with Motor Trend.

He was offered a part in the 1969 film "Winning," in which he played race car driver Frank Capua, reportedly turning other more lucrative parts down just because taking the job on "Winning" meant that chance to drive a race car. Newman, along with his co-star Robert Wagner, enrolled in the Bob Bondurant Racing School, a well-known and well-regarded place to learn how to drive a race car. He also attended a race at New York's Watkins Glen International, which solidified his love and fascination with racing (via Alt Driver). "Winning" wasn't all that successful at the box office, but it was the moment where Paul Newman — by then in his mid-40s — began focusing on a second career as a professional racecar driver.

Newman works his way through the ranks

Considering he was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood at the time, Paul Newman had more than enough money to buy a high-end race car or could have started showing up to races as part of a high profile Pro/Am lineup at endurance races. That's not what he did.

According to Skoda Motorsport, Newman started off driving a Datsun 510. Datsun is a Japanese automotive company, now known as Nissan, although the Datsun brand name is still used in some international markets. The 510 was a small, boxy car, but it was the perfect car for a beginner like Newman to hop in and learn the finer points of tearing around a circuit and honing his race craft.

Not only was the Datsun 510 a good car for Newman, but he was also a great asset for the car company as well. Newman appeared in ads for the company in later years and won championships behind the wheel of various Datsuns.

Paul Newman A.K.A. P.L. Newman

Newman entered races early in his career under the name "P.L. Newman" to keep additional attention and of course the paparazzi at bay. His desire to blend in was even mentioned when he was inducted into the Sports Car Club of America Hall of Fame.

Newman was at Sebring Raceway in Florida and went into town to grab a bite to eat with legendary motor sports journalist Robin Miller. After they had finished eating, the waitress asked Miller if the man he had been dining with — who was dressed in a McDonald's t-shirt, an old baseball hat, and loafers — was Paul Newman. Miller said it wasn't and that it was one of the painters working out at the track, and just looked like Newman. Miller told Newman this out in the parking lot and the Hollywood legend laughed all the way back to the track (via SCCA). This helped Newman's reputation, and his fellow drivers appreciated that he wasn't there for attention; he was there to race.

Newman goes pro

By 1972, Newman was ready to try his hand at driving in a professional race. It was at Thompson International Speedway in Connecticut, and Newman jumped in a Lotus Elan for Bob Sharp Racing (via Jalopnik). The race was a Sports Car Club of America event, and Newman participated in many more throughout the 1970s (via Alt Driver).

In 1979, Newman entered one of the most prestigious races in the world, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The grueling race is famous for taking place on a circuit that's over 8 miles long and combines purpose-built sections of track with closed public roads. Newman's entry — along with teammates Dick Barbour, who also owned the car, and Rolf Stommelen — came in second place overall and first in the IMSA GTX class, completing 300 laps in 24 hours (via Racing Reference).

In the 1980s, Newman drive for Bob Sharp Racing in the Trans-Am series, and in his typical style, he announced to the rest of the field that he was the real deal. According to Racing Sports Cars, he won his first race in the series at Minnesota's Brainerd International Raceway behind the wheel of a Datsun 280ZX Turbo. He was 57 years old at the time.

Paul Newman: the team ownership

Newman's love for racing was evident even if he wasn't the one in the driver's seat. According to Alt Driver, his first team ownership venture was Newman-Freeman Racing, which he started with partner Bill Freeman. The team managed to snag several wins and even a Can-Am series title. One of their drivers was future Formula 1 champion Keke Rosberg (via Racing Years).

Newman's second venture into team ownership was a foray into the world of open-wheeled single-seaters. Newman-Haas Racing, a team he founded with co-owner Carl Haas, competed in both the CART and IndyCar Series from 1983 to 2011. Most of the team's success came during their time in the CART series where they notched over 100 wins and 246 podiums (via Race Database). They also clinched multiple drivers championships thanks to big-name drivers in their cars like Michael Andretti and Formula 1 champion Nigel Mansell.

Newman's late career and success at Daytona

One of the most incredible things about Newman's racing career isn't just the success, its the longevity. He only started racing in his 40s and continued into his 80s, and some of his greatest accomplishments came later in his career.

The most prestigious endurance race in the United States is the 24 Hours of Daytona, which uses Daytona International Speedway's road course and attracts the top names in sports car racing as well as from other disciplines, from stock car racing to IndyCar to Formula 1.

Newman entered the race in 1995 at age 70. He was one of the drivers running a Ford Mustang in the GTS-1 class for Roush Racing, which was sponsored by Paramount Pictures and displayed the No. 70, a nod to Newman's age. According to Racing Sports Cars, Newman and co-drivers Tom Kendall, Mike Brockman, and NASCAR legend Mark Martin managed to finish first in the GTS-1 class and third overall. This made Newman the oldest driver to be part of a winning team at a major race (via Alt Driver).

Newman continued racing in the 21st century, and in 2004, at nearly 80 years old, Newman competed at Daytona once again, this time alongside Gunnar Jeanette, Mike Brockman, and Kyle Petty, in a car featuring a special livery to promote Newman's then-upcoming movie, Pixar's "Cars." Unfortunately, an engine failure forced an early retirement (via Racing Sports Cars).