2008.10.08 A memory or two of Paul Newman

Written by David Green.

A trivial memory or two of Paul Newman


The recent death of acting legend Paul Newman has rekindled memories for millions of people. For me, Newman was one of several celebrities, including David Letterman and the late Walter Payton, who owned teams in the former CART open-wheel racing series. Back during the 1980s and 90s, seeing Paul was as easy as going to a car race.

Newman became a team owner in 1983 and made many trips to MIS over the years until CART’s last race there in 2001. His drivers during that period included Mario and Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell and Paul Tracy.

Newman was known on the racing circuit for his aversion to signing autographs. Most people were too much in awe of him to talk to him in the first place, but those brave enough to request an autograph always came away empty handed. A signed race helmet he once donated to a charity auction was the highlight of the fund-raiser. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get a Newman signature.

Why he didn’t like to sign was a mystery to most, but one race photographer was able to answer the question, and eventually even got the coveted autograph to boot. The gentleman in question approached Newman before a race, photograph in hand, and instead of an autograph, received a three-minute explanation of why he wouldn’t get one.

As the photographer later told me, Newman said that many years before, someone buttonholed him at a rest room urinal while he was, shall we say, in the middle of conducting business, and asked for an autograph. Newman was so offended at this thoughtless invasion of his privacy that he vowed never to sign again if he could help it.

While disappointed, the photographer at least understood Newman’s position. He then found a spot to stand behind the Newman team’s pits, planning to take an interesting pit stop photo or two during the race.

As the start of the race neared, Newman discovered that there weren’t any binoculars available for his use. Paul then approached the photographer, who had a pair, and said, “Let me have your binoculars, and you can have my autograph after the race.” The deal was made, and the photographer ultimately got a personalized photo inscribed, “Thanks for the use of your equipment, Paul Newman” for his trouble.

One of the ways people on the CART circuit passed time in those days was to quiz each other with trivia questions, usually about popular culture. Once, during a CART media day at MIS, I was fortunate enough to have lunch with racing broadcaster Paul Page and three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford.

About mid-meal, someone approached Rutherford and asked, “What was the name of Sky King’s plane?” Johnny immediately answered, “‘The Songbird,’ of course.” After the man left, Rutherford turned to Page and me and asked, “Doesn’t everyone know that?”

A year or so later, I walked into the MIS press room shortly before a CART race and was called over to a small group of people by a former high school classmate who worked in the MIS public relations department. She told the assembly that I could probably answer the question, which turned out to be, “What was the name of the movie in which Paul Newman played an alcoholic lawyer?” Unfortunately, I couldn’t supply the title, instead suggesting they try to track down Johnny Rutherford.

About that time, the woman who handled media relations for Newman’s race team came into the room and was sucked into the discussion. Sadly, she didn’t know the answer, either. “They hired me to do his race team PR, not because I was an expert on his movies,” was her lame defense.

She soon disappeared, and we laughed at her lack of knowledge of her boss’s career. But we were about to find out what a PR professional she really was.

About ten minutes later she walked back into the press room, up to our little gathering, and announced, “Paul says, ‘The Verdict.’”  You had to give her credit for bothering Newman with such a trivial question. And I always wondered what his reaction was when she asked.

I still imagine that Paul probably thought we were a bit nuts to be concerned about such a small thing. But movie trivia is important stuff. Heck, that’s why no one will ever forget Paul Newman.

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