Sunday, September 28, 2008

Paul Newman - Road Altanta 1976

Jerry Garrett writes in today's New York Times ("Thanks for the Lift, Mr. Newman") of his first assignment covering an auto race -- the 1976 SSCA championships races at Road Atlanta. That year Paul Newman won his first national championship, competing in D production with a Triumph TR6. I was there to watch a Jensen-Healey, which my traveling companion (and later to be husband) had worked on back in the shop and as crew for some regional races.

Even then I was a great admirer of Paul Newman as an actor. But that was the first time I learned anything about what kind of person he was. He was around the track all weekend, kept pretty much to himself and, amazingly, no one tried to bother him. On Saturday we walked right by his small motor home, and saw him and Joanne Woodward relaxing and sitting in folding chairs, oblivious to everyone around them. Later when I saw him standing near the track, I was struck by how handsome he was, a natural grace and ease evident even when he was just hanging around, hot, dirty, and in the usual disarray of drivers who change in and out of their driving suits.

What I saw and later heard was very much in keeping with what Garrett writes about the banquet held afterwards (when we were long gone on the road back to Wisconsin). Garrett recalls:
I will always remember that after he won the S.C.C.A. D Production championship in 1976, he and his wife, Joanne Woodward, unexpectedly attended the tacky victory banquet that night. It was held at the area’s only chain hotel. Mr. and Mrs. Newman refused to receive any sort of deferential treatment. They sat at a round table with other racers and mechanics. They stayed for the whole program, even though Mr. Newman received his award before some others. And they politely consumed perhaps the worst banquet meal I’ve ever been served: canned peas, scalloped potatoes and some sort of overcooked meat that didn’t look, smell or taste like chicken.
(Read the rest for a great closing line).

As years went on I read more about Newman and Woodward, their unassuming ways and concern for others. I also was deeply impressed by Newman's acting in his later years, especially The Verdict and Nobobdy's Fool. He had the uncanny ability to get under the skin of these later, vulnerable, flawed, yet fiercely noble characters. He seemed to understand them at their best and their worst. Those characters were very much like my first husband, the guy with the blue eyes, the quirky smile, and the passion for car racing, whose heart was always with the underdog and hand always ready to help a stranger, but who could never quite hold his own in life. Remembering Paul Newman, I remember him as well and that first weekend we spent together in Atlanta. May they both rest in peace.


Grandmère Mimi said...

Klady, it's a lovely story of Paul and Joanne. You portray them exactly as I would imagine them to be.

Lindy said...

I am too young to ever have thought much about it. But, now I get it... why he's such a big deal. Thank you.