Posted by on Aug 22, 2008 in Racing | 7 comments

(Note: The photo above is from 2005. It was shot by Robert Ondrovic; you can see more of his outstanding work here. )

When I’m telling racing stories at cocktail parties and people’s eyes glaze with boredom – this takes nearly 30 seconds – I know exactly what to say to regain my audience: “I’ve shared the track with Paul Newman.”

Works every time.

Note the careful phrasing: I imply, but do not actually say, that I’ve raced against Newman, who’s known as PLN around the track. I’ve never raced against him because our cars run in different classes. My class comprises Mazdas, Porsches, Acuras, and BMWs. It’s a reasonably fast group but it is nothing, repeat nothing, compared to Newman’s class: GT-1, made up of the fastest, lowest, widest, loudest, most brutish cars at the track.

Keep that in mind when you consider 83-year-old Paul Newman racing. He’s not chugging around the track in a jolly ’53 MG, silk scarf flying, eh wot? He’s strapping on a 700-horsepower weapon that scares the bejesus out of people when he merely starts the engine. (As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up. Inevitably, a crowd of looky-loos gathers around poor PLN’s paddock when he races at Connecticut’s Lime Rock Park. You should see them jump when he fires up his Corvette.)

Last year I went to a test day at Lime Rock to tune my car for a big season-ending race. During these test days, cars from various classes run at the same time. This is perilous because some of the cars are much faster than others – drivers must keep an eye on their mirrors to avoid unpleasant surprises.

As it turned out, I was grouped with Newman, but didn’t realize it because we hit the track at different times.

So there I was, sailing along, cutting lap times I was pleased with. Each time I drove down Lime Rock’s long front straight I glanced in my mirrors, searching for faster cars. Nothing.

Without warning, in the middle of a turn leading onto a section called No Name Straight, I heard a furious blat. Half a second later, Paul Newman passed me on the outside and vanished. He was so fast that I’d never spotted him, so fast he could pass me whenever and wherever the hell he wanted.

He must have passed me 10 more times that day. Usually I saw him coming in my mirrors, but sometimes that angry blat was my first clue. He was that fast. (Insult to Injury Dept.: For some time now, Newman has used his age as his race car number. So each time he blew by me I got to stare at a big 83 on the back of his car, evidence I’d been passed by an old man.)

Poor journalist that I am, I’ve buried the lede and the point of this story. Yesterday, the powers that be graciously shut down Lime Rock for a few hours to let Paul Newman spin a few farewell laps in his GT-1 Corvette and say goodbye to his favorite race track. As most know by know, PLN has cancer, and I’m hearing he doesn’t have an awful lot of time left. He’s a helluva racer. Can act a little, too.