The world shall forever know Paul Newman both as an Oscar winning actor and as a staunch environmentalist. A man who dazzled us with his on-screen prowess and off-screen with his generous philanthropy, as to date Newman’s Own has donated more than $430 million dollars to charities. Yet few people in my generation know of the petrol-powered passion that nearly led to the ruin of this American actor, and how it ultimately led to his numerous record-setting wins behind the wheel of the most unlikely of vehicles. Since the 1970s Paul had been an avid supporter of Japanese car manufacturer Datsun, which eventually morphed into a company we like to call Nissan, and at first everyone thought he was nuts.
Long before most people even knew what a Datsun was, Paul Newman was busy falling in love with motorsports while training at the Watkins Glen Racing School for the filming of his 1969 film, Winning. A few years later, Newman participated in his first race in at Thompson International Speedway in Connecticut while behind the wheel of a Datsun 510. Then, in 1976, Newman contacted Bill Freeman about forming a professional auto racing team, and from that day forward, their “Newman Freeman Racing” team became very competitive, kicking ass in everything from Can-Am to IndyCar.
In 1979, with only two years of professional racing under his belt, Newman took his Budweiser/Canon/Pioneer sponsored Bob Sharp Racing Datsun 280ZX to the C Production Championship, where he dominated the race and won. But according to DatsunHistory.com, Newman refused to accept payment for his driving, and opted instead for a large quantity of beer from Budweiser in lieu of a paycheck. But it wasn’t always wins for the actor, and Closer Weekly once reported that during a six-hour endurance race, mechanical problems with a new car destroyed any hope Newman had of winning. “They were in the pit for two hours, which put them out of contention” recalls Matt Stone, author of Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman. “But once they had the car running, he was back at it, driving like he was going to win, even though he had no chance. He just drove the wheels off this thing.”
For the next twenty-five years Newman’s name continued to be synonymous with Nissan, and the more races he won behind the wheel of one, the stronger the Japanese firm felt about investing in America. Here was a red-blooded, award-winning, highly respected American actor that genuinely liked racing and promoting their vehicles, which made him the perfect poster-boy for promoting the Japanese firm’s commitment to the American market. Newman later became even more closely associated with the Nissan brand during the 1980s, and even appeared in a series of commercials for the company. Then, in 1983, as a “thank you” for his enduring support for the brand, a very limited “Paul Newman Edition R30 Skyline” was released to commemorate Nissan’s association with the actor. Aptly named the “Newman Skyline,” this top-spec GT-ES turbo edition featured signature embroidery and Newman’s own unique decals.
Would Nissan have as strong of an investment in the America market today if Paul Newman had not chosen to keep racing its cars? Probably not. As he continued to race Nissans, and kept winning races in them, more and more attention was directed his way because Newman wasn’t just some nut behind the wheel, but a thoroughbred actor with a reputation on the line. Newman had been in the public’s eye for decades by this point, and was a household name everyone respected and recognized, and Nissan wisely opted to capitalize upon this fact.
Long time fan and one of Winning‘s film directors, Adam Carolla, told Road & Track in an interview back in 2013 that he had procured one of Newman’s old 300ZX race cars and was restoring the chassis along with the inline-six turbo engine as it is what he said “qualifies as an inspiration for the JDM tuners that emerged in the Nineties.” Back when, this little IMSA GTO racer raced alongside V8-powered Camaros and Mustangs, and stunned the nation when it held its own, which was exactly the kind of credibility the Japanese manufacturer was looking for since Newman was always able to garner attention in grandiose fashion.
Over the course of his thirty-five year racing career, Newman won four national championships as a driver and eight as an owner, impressive considering he didn’t race professionally until he was 47 years old. According to the Newman’s Own Foundation, Newman was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest driver to win a professional race at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1995 at age 70. At 82, he ended up winning two races at Lime Rock Park that year, and as his long-time friend and costar Robert Redford once said, there never was a contest between acting and driving for Newman. “He wasn’t divided between the two — film would always come in second to racing.”
Before his death in 2008 at the age of 83, Newman participated in both the Baja 1000 and the 24 Hours of Daytona just to show the world that he still had what it took, and was posthumously inducted into the SCCA Hall of Fame at the national convention in Las Vegas, Nevada. Seven years after his death Newman continues to influence both the auto and film world, and next week a film highlighting his racing career is set for release. The film, entitled “Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman,” offers us a candid look at the man behind the wheel, and to commemorate the release of the film Nissan officially announced that it would be the presenting sponsor for the film.
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