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In Search of a State of Grace

Paul Newman is a man driven by an elusive quest. That's why the 75-year-old throws his energies into racing, charity, a food firm and, yes, acting.

August 20, 2000|PAUL LIEBERMAN | Paul Lieberman is a Times staff writer

LAKEVILLE, Conn. — "He's late."

"Yeah, way late."

It's been more than a minute since Paul Newman's car last whizzed past the pit area of Lime Rock Park. His crew knows something's wrong, for he's been running laps in less than 55 seconds. But two minutes pass, then three, and there's still no sight of him. The men scan the sky above distant sections of the winding track, looking for a telltale sign.

"I don't see any smoke," one says.

Then, finally, "There! He's comin' in!"

The red-white-and-blue GT-1 circuit sports car eases into the pit and someone pulls Newman out the window--the only way in and out of such a car. "He spun out over there," reports the owner of the car, Larry Leifert, pointing toward a tricky S-turn around the bend.

"Ah, I just got on the gas too hard, that's all," says Newman, taking off his helmet, grabbing a bottle of water and walking away to sit by himself on the white concrete barrier that stretches along the pit. He sits there silently, head slumped, catching his breath.

Newman has suggested, from time to time, that he's about done with racing, almost ready to give his wife, Joanne Woodward, some peace of mind. But he won't quit. Weeks before his 75th birthday on Jan. 26, he crashed his Porsche into a tire barrier during a practice run at Daytona, injuring his ribs. Weeks after the birthday, he was back at the Florida track for its 24-hour endurance race. When he dropped out after eight hours, it was because his car broke, not him.

He keeps at it though he has nothing more to prove--to anyone but himself. Hardly the first movie star to give racing a try after being exposed to it on a film--in his case, the 1969 "Winning"--he quickly established himself as the real thing. Taking his first driving lessons at 47, at Bob Bondurant's school in Northern California, he became the oldest winner of a major nationally sanctioned race in the United States. He was 61 years, 7 months when he won a Trans-Am event in August 1986, right here at Lime Rock.

Newman explains his zeal for racing with one word: grace. While he was a good enough athlete to play some football at Kenyon College in Ohio, he never felt graceful at it, he says. Nor at basketball or tennis or dancing, even. Only when he climbed into a car did he find it. Now he won't stop.

At 75, Newman brings up that word, grace, in arenas beyond the track. If you watch him for a few months--everywhere from a movie event to his summer camp for sick children--you'll hear it come up in reference to his work, say, or his stage of life.

Although he's never stopped being a 13-year-old in some ways--he's legendary for his pranks--he's hardly immune from feeling his age. He's been known to look around for his glasses and realize, finally, that they're atop his head. He sometimes stops mid-sentence, groping. "I lose words a lot," he says. He asked his 81-year-old neighbor in Westport how things were going, and the man said, "Some weeks I don't seem to be able to get out of my black suit." Newman wonders how he'll face his own darkest days.

He wonders how to wind up a career. And how does he handle, with grace, those people who make him out to be some kind of saint, who want to eulogize him as Hollywood's answer to Mother Teresa?

More immediately, how does he get back in that race car with out looking like a fool?

He came to Lime Rock this breezy spring afternoon to test a car operated by his Newman Sharp Racing team, a Nissan whose turbocharger was just rebuilt. But the fuel pressure regulator blew when he turned it on, filling the engine with gas. That's why he's borrowed the car normally driven by Jack Busch at raceways from Pocono to Watkins Glen.

Newman's quickest lap, before the spin-out, is 54.16 seconds. He's ready to try again. "You got any more padding?" he asks the crew, and they put some extra atop the metal seat. He stiffens his body, like a board, so they can lift him up and slide him in the window. Then he's off.

He runs a half dozen more laps, trying to get a feel for the suspension, then pulls back in, done for the day. "I'm wearing out your car," he tells Leifert.

"You have fun?" the car owner asks.

"Yes, sir. If my movie was doing so well, I'd be happier."


Newman's latest film, "Where the Money Is," had hit theaters two weeks earlier. It was a modestly budgeted diversion, nothing heavy, but let him play a trademark character, the charming rogue--a bank robber who fakes a stroke to get out of prison. Reviews were fairly good, and even if no one suggested his character would make audiences forget Hud or Cool Hand Luke, or Fast Eddie or Butch Cassidy, his performance was universally praised.

Yet the opening numbers are atrocious. Attracting mostly older audiences, the USA Films release took in only $2.5 million its first week. It's clear that it's doomed to be a blip on the radar screen, then disappear.

"We should have gotten people into the theater," Newman says.

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