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Bill Dwyre

Racing loses a real cool hand

September 28, 2008|Bill Dwyre

We saw Paul Newman as a Hollywood legend, a master actor who loomed above all on an unreachable pedestal of talent.

His buddy, Mario Andretti, saw him as a soft touch, a guy who would bet on anything.

"I almost always won," Andretti said Saturday, from his home in Nazareth, Pa. "It might have been the only thing he wasn't good at."

From the time, 41 years ago, when race car driving star Andretti gave movie star Newman a white-knuckle ride at a track in Long Island, to five days ago, when Andretti had his last conversation with Newman on the phone before Newman's death Friday, these fast friends were a little like frat boys.

"We did so many trivial things, stupid things," Andretti said. "I think of Paul now, I think of the lighter side."

Like a dinner in New York, Paul with wife Joanne Woodward, Mario with his wife, Dee Ann.

"We were always fighting for the check," Andretti said. "He would never give in, never in anything. One time, we settled a check by betting on how long it would take a beer bottle to hit the floor when it fell off the table.

"This time, he says, 'How many people do you think are on the street now between 8th and 9th Avenue?' He says, 'At least 75.' I said, 'No way, at the most 50.'

"Our wives roll their eyes and head for the ladies room. Paul and I get up and head out to the street to check out our bet. The poor maitre d' thinks we are running out on the check.

"And of course, I was right. There were barely 50 people out there, even when he's trying to count a hobo three times. So we go back and the maitre d' is relieved and I won the bet. Again."

Andretti was a big factor in Carl Haas getting together with Newman to form a racing team that became one of the sport's most successful. It was formed in 1983, Andretti won the Champ Car title the next year; his son, Michael, won it in 1991, and overall -- though it has never won an Indy 500 -- Newman-Haas Racing won 107 Indy car races.

Andretti, now 68, retired in 1995 after 12 seasons with the team, in racing an unusual show of loyalty and longevity. Newman, who not only owned cars but drove them competitively, continued on behind the wheel until two years ago, when at 81 he drove in a race at Daytona.

Their relationship, and the bets, continued.

"He'd call up and ask about everything, any major event, the Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl," Andretti said. " 'Who you got?' he'd say.

"One time, I bet him $1.76 on the Super Bowl. I won, of course, because he almost always lost. So he sent me a check for $1.76 and Fed-Exed it, which cost $9."

Andretti said that Newman was aggressive in everything he did in life.

"He and Joanne came up to a place I have on a lake in the Poconos," Andretti said. "He wanted to try the jet skis, but he always had to try the toughest watercraft we had. One of them was little more than a surfboard with an engine. He had to try that, and he fought it and fought it until he got it."

Andretti said that he worried when Newman drove at Daytona at 81.

"Sure, you worry, but there was no stopping him," he said. "With stuff like that, Joanne would say that her husband had a sickness and nothing was gonna cure it. I found him inspirational."

Asked how strong Newman's voice was during their final conversation last week, Andretti choked up a bit and, without really answering directly, answered perfectly.

"He was trying," he said.

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. For previous columns, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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