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PLEASURES OF THE ROAD : TRACK STARS : Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Perry King and Lorenzo Lamas rap on racing

March 13, 1988|NIKKI FINKE | Finke is a Times staff writer

Sometimes their celebrity gets in the way of their racing. And sometimes their racing gets in the way of their celebrity. But for decades, fame-name Hollywood actors have eagerly jumped into the driving seat.

Paul Newman, James Garner and Steve McQueen led the way, becoming race-car drivers on film and in reality. Gene Hackman first got behind the wheel in "The French Connection;" Lorenzo Lamas worked his racing into TV scripts for "Falcon Crest," and Perry King did it merely for the heck of it. Now savvy movie studios are considering a new round of auto-racing epics that could star such box office heartbreakers as Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise.

Nearly all actors get started the same way--by being invited to drive in a celebrity race. From there, they might attend a professional driving school. After that, they vie for championships depending on what their competitive spirits, or their pocketbooks, can allow.

PAUL NEWMAN at age 62 is the grand old man of celebrity auto racers. Inarguably, no one has even come close to matching his level of fame in and out of the winner's circle.

By capturing enough honors in the past 15 years to earn him respect as a world-class driver, Newman has shocked not only his multitudes of fans but also the racing professionals. For years, in fact, the wins almost made up for his disheartening status as perpetual runner-up for the Best Actor Oscar--that is, until he finally captured the award in 1986 for his role in "The Color of Money."

Newman didn't get the racing bug until he played a driver in the 1969 film "Winning," a story centered on the Indianapolis 500. He was 47 when he took his first racing lessons at the Bob Bondurant racing school in Northern California. Since then, however, he has almost singlehandedly demonstrated that professional driving is not solely a young man's sport.

With his team headquarters located near his home in Westport, Conn., Newman travels around the country entering himself in Trans-Am Series races as "P. L. Newman." But his movie fans aren't fooled and follow him to the track faithfully. To escape their attention, the actor usually hides out inside a rented motor home. Despite racing in a fishbowl, he manages to be "one of the guys" alongside other drivers, who kid him about his advanced age. But the best jokes about it are made by Newman himself.

Tragically, Newman's long-time teammate and very close friend, 65-year-old Jim Fitzgerald, was killed in St. Petersburg, Fla., last November when he crashed his Nissan 300ZX Turbo in the early stages of a Grand Prix race that was closing out the Trans-Am season. Newman declines comment about the effect that Fitzgerald's death has had on him. "That's a private question," the actor says, "and I don't have a public answer for it."

There was talk after the accident that Newman might never race again. But the actor appears determined to keep doing what he's so good at doing--both on the track and on the screen. Just as Newman the actor is reluctant to talk about the details of his acting, so Newman the racer is reluctant to talk about the details of his racing.

"When Joanne and I did 'Winning' in 1969, I was captivated. I was just hooked. I guess I'm a man of whims and whimsy. But it took me about five years before I could find the time to take off from March to October and get a (pro) license and even run a season. When I won the SCAA (Sports Car Club of America) division championship, I was in a little Datsun 510.

"It's interesting, now, because racing is not an avocation anymore, it's a profession. I compete in about 12 to 15 races a season. It's not an awful lot, but it takes me all around the country. I can barely handle what I've got. Really, it gets very expensive. But a good professional driver does it full-time. I'm not supposed to race when I'm in a movie. The insurance companies frown on that.

"But the actor, like the driver, is held hostage by his equipment. After a while, you simply have to keep an instrument oiled. You can't just throw it in the garage and pick it up every four or five years and expect it to work. That's almost happening now.

"I mean, I used to make 2 1/2 movies a year, and now I'm grateful that I've got automobiles. Because if I didn't, I would not know what I'd do with myself. I may find a good script for me to be in now once every two years. And it's not because I'm not anxious to work. It's dry. It's dry out there. The stuff is not being written, because I think probably I get as good a crack as anyone at whatever it is that's out there.

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