Memories of Paul Newman: Racing Buddy, Paul White

Paul Newman
Portrait of screen actor Paul Newman during photo shoot at his home. Westport, CT 11/1/1982 -(Photo by Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

On the racing circuit, as well as among his thespian peers, Paul Newman was known as “PL”, the initials that he signed off letters with and that stood for Paul Leonard. “It’s funny,” says his old friend from the track Paul White. “There was a common belief that PL didn’t actually have a middle name but chose the name Leonard for himself. But whatever the case, we always referred to him by those two initials. Paul was involved with both his professional racing team and on the amateur circuit and I spent a lot of time with him at Newman-Haas IndyCar race team. I became known as “OP” standing for the ‘Other Paul’. I used to tell him that was fine, as long as it didn’t stand for ‘older’.”

White met Newman while he was racing Formula Ford cars at Lime Rock Park in north-western Connecticut. He laughs as he recalls their first contact. “I had two women in my pit crew and one day PL strolled by while they were working on my race car. He stopped to watch us. One of my feisty Boston Catholic female friends stopped and stared back saying: ‘You got a problem?’” PL loved it and this started a dialogue. The Pauls also shared a friend in fellow Formula Ford driver at the time Michael Andretti. Newman and White bonded over their mutual home of New England – not an area famed as a hotbed of racing drivers.

Haas, Michael and Mario Andretti and Newman
1992: Team owners Carl Haas (Far Left) and Paul Newman (Far Right) pose with their drivers for the 1992 Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) season, Michael Andretti and his father Mario Andretti. Michael had a great season for the team, taking four wins and finishing second in the CART championship standings. Mario did not win a race, but finished sixth in points.

From this first meeting developed a deep and enduring friendship. Newman had already opened the first of his summer camps for children in Connecticut funded within legal parameters from the profits of his Newman’s Own products. White went on to volunteer for 10 summers in a row at the “The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. “PL always said that life was basically luck and so many kids were born with no luck at all,” says White. “That was why he started the Hole in The Wall Gang Camp – named after the gang from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This first camp was for kids between seven and 17 with blood-related diseases. It opened in 1988 with the aim of allowing these children whose lives were regulated by sickness and medical care to come and ‘raise a little hell’.”

Today the reach of Newman’s legacy extends to children with serious illnesses and unique medical or genetic issues, with more than 30 camps all over the US, as well as in Ethiopia, Lesotho, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Swaziland, Botswana, Malawi, Israel, Haiti, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Japan, the UK, Ireland, France, Italy and Hungary. These “Hole in the Wall Gang” affiliated camps as Newman mandated, insure that every camper attends absolutely free of charge –  accommodation, food, activities and medical care all taken care of.

Paul Newman, Paul White and Graham Rahal
(From Left to right) Paul Newman, Paul White and Graham Rahal

Crossing the Boundaries

According to those who knew him well, Newman liked to compartmentalise his life – a way to allow him to give his all to each and every area, from acting to family, racing and philanthropy. White was one of the few that managed to traverse several of these fields and as such was able to witness Newman’s legendary generosity on several levels.

“I became very close with a couple of the kids from camp and we’re still close to this day,” he says. “I travelled a lot with PL and the racing team and occasionally I’d ask if I could take the kids to races. If there was room on the team plane PL would always welcome them. In fact, he always felt a little uncomfortable with the private jet and used to say he felt ostentatious when flying alone. It’s funny, all the teams had their jets and most chose tail numbers to match their team owner’s name – this included the likes of Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, Bobby Rahal, and even Mario Andretti. Each owner also incorporated the number 500 into their plane’s respective “N” tail number representing the Indy 500, still the world’s largest single day sporting event anywhere in the world. Of course, PL’s tail number was a little different, to wit ‘N499 NH’. When asked why he hadn’t followed the pack and adopted 500, he would say: ‘I’m down a lap.’

“There is no doubt that PL loved racing but I think it was at the camp that he could really be himself. The kids didn’t know or care that he was a famous actor, he was ‘just a guy’. I remember we used to go out fishing in pairs, a sort of buddy system. There always had to be a counsellor or adult in the boat with the camper. PL was a great fisherman and one time he was fishing alone on the dock when one of the kids wanted to go out on the lake. He offered to take him out and when they came back after an hour on the boat with this famous actor one of the councillors asked the camper: ‘How was your buddy?’ Much to everyone’s amusement, he replied: ‘Don’t know who he is but he sure can’t fish.’”

Paul Newman with kids from the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp
Paul Newman with kids from the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp

The Right Track

According to White, it was at the race track that Newman found a whole new lease of life. He was just another racing devotee. Both he and his race team partner for more than 25 years, Carl Haas provided the heart and soul of the Newman-Haas Racing. Together they steered the team to incredible success, which included 107 wins, 109 poles, and eight championships. Between 1983 and 2011 drivers including Mario and Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Cristiano da Matta and Sébastien Bourdais became part of the Newman/Haas IndyCar family where everyone from Hollywood heartthrob to superstar driver to shop mechanic was an equal. Mario Andretti drove for Newman/Haas longer than any other driver and had a particularly close bond with Newman, about which White says: “Mario loved Paul because Paul loved racing. Mario tells the story of PL’s own CanAm race car, a Lola T700-Cosworth, which had ‘Paul Newman’s Lola’ written on the nose. PL asked Mario to drive it and shake it down for him. Afterwards Mario said: ‘I don’t like it. If you want I’ll put my name on it and you drive it!’ They were tight and talked a lot.”

White further recalls: “PL was always interested in the lives of their team’s employees and was friendly and relaxed with all of them. PL loved all kinds of racing. Indeed, while filming in Maine he asked me to find a car for him to drive at a local track (Star Speedway). Not only did he come close to matching times of an accomplished racer in attendance (Bentley Warren) in his 900+ horsepower Super modified, but then he hung out with everyone on the track, handing out beers he had brought with him. Typically, he didn’t like making movies in the summer because that’s when he could race, which he did right up until he was 80. Once or twice he even drove the Newman-Haas Indy car at a couple of test sessions but we never told Joanne about that.

“PL and Carl were the perfect partnership. They had different approaches and disagreed a lot but if they hadn’t got on so well it wouldn’t have lasted. Ultimately, they both wanted the best of everything for the team and they committed to its monetary needs when they were both active with the team. Fittingly, we won the race in Detroit in 2008, just weeks before PL passed away.

Paul Newman
Paul Newman in his natural state in the 1969 Film 'Winning' (Image: Gessato)

Daytona Memories

White says that Newman giving his Daytona to James Cox is not in any way unusual. “He was generous to a fault,” he remembers. “I saw him give things away all the time. He would do it in a quiet way though as he hated people to talk about it. I remember that there was an article in Life magazine when the first camp opened. The headline on the front page was ‘Paul Newman’s Dream’ and he was really upset about it, he wanted the camps to be recognised for what they did not because of his notoriety.

The current publicity surrounding the sale of the “Paul Newman” Daytona ref. 6239 has brought back a lot of memories for White, in which the watch takes a starring role. “Carl Haas loved watches and had many Rolexes, but for PL it was more of a functional thing and the precision was incredibly important to him. He had the Speaking Clock on speed-dial and would often challenge Carl to see if the watch he was wearing was more accurate than the Daytona. Stakes ranged from half a penny to maybe a quarter.  The watch was an integral part of his life because punctuality was really important to him – if we were ever flying somewhere I wouldn’t dare be late because that plane would be gone no matter who was missing.”

The Daytona also played a major role in Newman’s exercise regime – as well as that of everyone around him. “He couldn’t go to a gym at the hotel because people would know he was there,” says White. “So, he would run the fire escape stairs at the hotel. With four or five of us accompanying him – all governed by the Rolex. He’d say: ‘Right, 15 minutes starting now. And after 10 minutes I would say: ‘Have you started the chronograph?’ He would smile and reply: ‘I forgot’. He’d always have to be in pole position, which was fine, we were happy to bring up the rear even though we were all much younger than he was. After the workout, he’d reset the watch and say: ‘Meet you in the lobby in 15 minutes.’ We had to shower, change and make sure we got there. It was all good-natured but he absolutely meant it. The watch wasn’t a showpiece, it was something he used daily. When flying, he would constantly check the Rolex and comment on when we would be rotating left or right. He just loved to time stuff.”

Expanding on Newman’s frustration with people who refused to be punctual, White brings up PL’s big-screen partner-in-crime Robert Redford. In 2005, Redford started producing a series of shows for his Sundance TV channel called Iconoclasts and one episode focused on him and Newman together. Filming was due to begin at Newman’s house the day after a race and he asked White to stay and help with the logistics. Redford was due to be there at 9am but by 10.30am had still not arrived. “PL called me over and gave me a $100 bill saying: ‘When Redford gets here hand the note back and tell me I won the bet that he would be an hour late.’ I’d never met Redford before, but as we were introduced, I handed the money to PL. Without flinching Redford said: ‘Hey! Are you betting on me again?’ The two of them had a crazy relationship – there is a legendary story of a Porsche Redford owned when he lived in Connecticut. While he was away, PL had it crushed. Of course, he bought him another one.”

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward (Image: Keystone France via Getty Images)
Paul Newman's "Paul Newman"
Possibly the most famous wristwatch in the world, Paul Newman's Rolex Daytona ref. 6239 will go on sale on 26 October 2017 at Phillips, New York (Watch images courtesy of Optimist Consulting)
Paul Newman's "Paul Newman"
A simple message “Drive Carefully Me” that engraved on the caseback (Watch images courtesy of Optimist Consulting)

One Track

Although there is little actual use for a chronograph on today’s tracks, beyond being a back-up in case electronic systems go down, for Newman the ref. 6239 was an essential piece of kit and he would sit in the timing stand using it as a stopwatch to time cars and the gaps between them. And, although he did own other workhorse watches, such as the Timex that he wore during an interview with AARP magazine in 2005, the Rolex was the one that was seen the most.

“Rolex was always the watch of choice at the track because the brand is the main sponsor of Le Mans and Daytona, so it was the one name that everyone knew. There were some guys like Carl Haas who were real watch fans – I remember he even had the team engineers build him a case full of complex gears that would wind 30-or-so watches at a time – but on the whole Rolex was the default. I know most of the pictures around show PL’s watch on a fat-strap but I remember him wearing it on a bracelet, I’m not sure when he swapped it over.”

And if he was here today, does White think he would be happy to see his Daytona go under the hammer with such fanfare? “He’d love it. He was set on all five of his daughters being involved in charity in a simple non-public way and he would really appreciate Nell and James doing this. I am not unique in what I did at the kids’ camp, PL had a way of getting everyone to think about others. That’s what he was all about. He couldn’t bear that some people were just dealt a bad hand in life. He often used to say that he was not sure he’d have made it as an actor if he didn’t have those blue eyes of his. Ever modest, PL would be delighted to see the watch he wore as a tool go on to help so many people thanks to the Nell Newman Foundation.” If he were here today he’d be betting the buyer a nickel that the Rolex just sold was more accurate than any watch in the audience.

Paul Newman
Paul Newman