If one were to pick two Hollywood giants that were the craziest about motorsports, it would have to be Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. Both took their racing exploits seriously and worked hard to perfect their craft. Newman even parlayed his love for the sport into a longterm stint as a very successful Indy car team owner. Both were also at the heart of two of the most famous racing movies ever made, Newman in Winning and McQueen in LeMans.
Though they never went head-to-head on a race track, the two stars did work together and had some interesting parallels in the racing world. From the book Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman is a look at when Hollywood’s blue-eyed racers first encountered each other.
Newman and McQueen during a break from the filming of The Towering Inferno in 1974. How epic would it have been to see Hollywood’s two most accomplished racers face off on the track? 20th Century Fox/PhotoFest
NEWMAN AND MCQUEEN: HOLLYWOOD’S BLUE-EYED RACERS
Paul Newman’s break-out movie performance came in 1956’s Somebody Up There Likes Me. James Dean was originally signed to the lead role in this biographical portrayal of boxer Rocky Graziano’s early years. Dean was killed, somewhat prophetically, in a Central California road accident on September 30, 1955, while on his way to participate in a sports car race. Newman was given the part.
About eight minutes into the film, a young Newman enters a pool hall to meet up with a few of his hoodlum pals, among them one named Fidel. Although there is no mention of him in the credits, Fidel was played by another devilishly handsome, blue-eyed, up-and-coming thespian named Steve McQueen. Their lives, careers, and love of motor racing continued to cross, until McQueen’s passing in November 1980.
“If I hadn’t been an actor, or a director of films, I guess I would have liked to become a racing driver more than anything else.”- Paul Newman
Newman purchased this tubeframed Trans-Am/GT-1 Corvette from Tom Gloy, whom he raced with in 1993. Don’t think the maturing PLN didn’t have a heavy foot; note the air under the front tires as the car crests a hill at Lime Rock. Randy McKee
There are interesting parallels. Both men competed in the SCCA, and both finished second overall after nearly pulling off Cinderella victories in a major endurance race – McQueen at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1970, Newman at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1979. Both did so at the wheel of a Porsche. Newman raced at Le Mans, but his racing movie, Winning, took place around the Indy 500. McQueen made the ultimate film about the 24-hour French classic but never raced there. Both owned racing teams at one time or another, although McQueen was never an owner on the grand scale that Newman was. McQueen’s first new car was a 1958 Porsche Speedster; Newman chose the same model for his character’s wheels in 1964’s Harper.
Who was the better racer? Impossible to say, since they were never on the same track at the same time. But Dick Barbour drove with both of them, coaching McQueen early in his career and taking Newman to Le Mans, and he gives the nod to McQueen. “Paul was a very methodical driver,” he says. “He wasn’t a natural like Steve was. McQueen picked it up immediately.”
Much of Winning was shot after the completion of the 1968 Indy 500 because the producers needed to know who won. Since actual race footage was being interstitched with purpose-shot scenes, Newman’s car needed to be liveried to resemble the winner.
The Newman/Haas Dream Team: Haas, Michael and Mario Andretti, and Newman. The 1992 season was the last father and son raced together; Michael left to race F1 in 1993, and by the time he returned, Mario had retired. Indianapolis Motor Speedway
That said, Newman was just graduating from the club-racing phase of his career when he teamed up with Barbour in 1979. After returning from Le Mans, Newman stepped up to the professional ranks in a big way, and into the mid-1980s, he held his own against some of the toughest road-racing competition in America. Aside from his two forays to Sebring, McQueen never raced at the pro level. Advantage: Newman.
Of course, the real question is this: Who would have been better if they’d both started racing when they were kids? The answer is that millions of movie goers couldn’t care less.
The complete story about Newman’s love affair with auto racing is an extremely interesting and colorful ride. Be sure to check out Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman for more stories from his “second” career, including awesome photography, period promotional materials, and dozens of personal interviews including Kevin Jeannette, Brad Davis, and David Letterman.
Younger readers may best know Paul Newman as the voice of Doc in the very popular Cars movies.
Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman is also the title of the 2015 documentary about Paul Newman from director Adam Carolla. Read the book that inspired the film!
Though he is famous as one of Hollywood’s greatest actors, a world-class humanitarian, and the founder of the Newman’s Own natural food empire, the late Paul Newman had another intriguing and lesser-known passion: he was an avid, successful, and well-respected car racer and team owner. In Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman, Matt Stone of Motor Trend teams up with Preston Lerner of Automobile magazine to bring you the incredible racing biography of a man whose serious racing days began at an age when many race car drivers contemplate retirement. It is the story of someone who entered the 24 Hours of Daytona at the age of 70 and made his last professional race outing at 82; whose roster of Newman Haas drivers reads like a who’s-who of open-wheel racing; and whose interest in cars extended from the likely suspects to old trucks and new hybrids. Newman is also the charming pal who, when a miserably wrecked Ferrari was dropped at his door by the incorrigible prankster Robert Redford, returned the favor by having the car, crushed into a cube, delivered to Redford’s living room. The anecdotes, the races, the cars- Winning contains them all, adding up to an award-winning and unprecedented look at Paul Newman’s racing talent, unwavering conviction, endearing charm, and enduring spirit.