ST. BONIFACIOUS, Minn.
Goodyear was a sponsor of our Racing Promotion Monthly and the Promoters Workshops through most of the 1980s, and one of the perks of that association was access to the Goodyear Tower in the infield at Daytona, where visiting celebrities hung out to hide from the throngs and watch the races.
It was there we had a chance encounter with Paul Newman in 1990. As we watched one of the Thursday 125 qualifiers, there was a big pileup in the turn entering the backstretch, and everyone in the tower went to one of the TV monitors to see a replay. We elbowed in next to this guy wearing a tan bucket hat and sunglasses. We asked him, “Who crashed?” He answered, “I dunno, maybe they’ll show it,” and the voice was unmistakable.
“Days of Thunder” was being filmed at Daytona during Speedweeks that year, and Newman was there with Tom Cruise, who starred in that picture as driver Cole Trickle. Cruise had turned out to be something of a good luck charm for Newman, who had earned a much-belated Academy Award for his 1986 film “The Color of Money,” with Cruise playing a small-time pool hustler.
Later that day, Newman joined us on the frontstretch side of the tower to watch the 125s. Wisconsin’s Dick Trickle was leading the race. “Hey,” I said, “That’s Cole Trickle’s father,” and Newman had a good laugh.
We’ve admired Paul Newman and his genuine love of racing for many years. He was never there as The Big Celebrity; there was no publicity, no entourage, no bodyguards, no roped-off restricted areas. He was there as just another driver. We remember the year they ran the eastern modified coupes on the infield road course at Daytona, hearing him give a joyful whoop when he learned of his good qualifying time.
He helped lead the fearsome Datsun team to road-racing titles, but he wanted to try every kind of racing car. He would show up unannounced at eastern tracks asking if he could do some laps in a sprint car or a DIRT modified. Reports said he got them all up to speed very quickly. When asked if he wanted to drive in the races, he would explain that his film contracts forbade it.
Newman’s philanthropies are well known. Profits after taxes from his high-quality sauces, dressings, marinades, wines, salsa, cereals and countless other food products have provided more than $200 million to charities and other worthy causes in the past 26 years.
Newman and I are within a year of the same age, and it was sad a year or so ago to hear him talk about retirement and growing old — the memory starting to slip, the step a little unsure, and other infirmities I share with him. He has been one of my heroes, a model of what a man can do and can be, and the news of his current serious illness feeds a great sadness.
I have tried from time to time to contact him, to ask if he remembered our brief meeting at Daytona, but like most major celebrities, he is kept insulated from the public. Maybe he will read this, or someone will tell him about it, so he knows how much people care.
My pull with The Man (or Woman) Upstairs is probably worn a little thin, but I’ll spend the rest of it if it will help this good man who loves racing.
Hang in there, Paul!