His auto racing career began while filming Winning in 1969, a film about a rising race star whose dreams of winning the Indy 500 could cause him to losing his family. In 1972, Newman raced in his first pro event, and in 1979 drove a Porsche 935 in the 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans, finishing second.
Even as his film career took off, Newman continued to be a trackside regular. From the 1970s to the 90s, Newman drove for the Bob Sharp Racing team in the Trans-Am Series. In 1995, he became the oldest driver to be a part of a winning racing team at the 24 Hours of Daytona race, taking first place in his class.
If that weren’t enough, Newman decided to compete in the bone-jarring Baja 1000 in 2004 and in the 24 Hours of Daytona the year after that. Newman at one time owned a car racing in the NASCAR Winston Cup, later selling it to Penske Racing where it remains the number 12 car.
Newman even brought his love of racing to the big screen, serving as the voice of retired racecar driver Doc Hudson in the Disney animated film Cars.
Many wondered what a guy his age was doing in the middle of these high-speed races. Would he be able to react to the course? Was he too old to compete? I think he proved to everybody that he was a strong competitor, at any age, and belonged on the track. He wasn’t some movie star trying to race. He was a racer.
While Newman embraced the sport of racing in his personal life, he certainly embodied sport in a number of his movies. In Cool Hand Luke his character even creates a sport of his own.
Luke: “I can eat fifty eggs.”
Dragline: “Nobody can eat fifty eggs. Did you ever eat fifty eggs?”
Luke: “Nobody ever eat fifty eggs.”
Prisoner: “Hey, Babalugats. We got a bet here.”
Dragline: “My boy says he can eat fifty eggs, he can eat fifty eggs.”
Loudmouth Steve: “Yeah, but in how long?”
Luke: “A hour.”
Society Red: “Well, I believe I'll take part of that wager.”
That is perhaps the most unique sporting event I have ever seen in a movie. The last three eggs Newman downs in that scene is as heart-pounding as Shanahan’s decision to go for two to win earlier this year.
And then there is Slap Shot, hands down the best and funniest sports movie of all time. This is the movie that taught my friends and I how to cuss in the locker room, and the one-liners from it are endless.
Newman played the number-one role in Slap Shot as Reggie Dunlop, the coach and “old guard” of the Charleston Chiefs hockey team. This is a team that finds a way to win with “old time hockey” – brutally fighting their opponents, with the help of the Hanson brothers, because of the team’s lack of skill. Dunlop encourages the behavior in the locker room before the game: “Get your f*cking stick in their side and let ’em know you’re there! Get that lumber in his teeth. Let ’em know you’re there!”
Being 15 at the time, this line certainly made an impression on me. I am sure many kids received the soap-in-mouth punishment because of that movie. Newman made it look so fun. And when it’s time to for Dunlop and the Chiefs to take the higher ground and play clean hockey? They lose. Lesson learned. When you can’t beat ’em fairly, beat ’em with your fist.
Dunlop: “I am personally placing a hundred-dollar bounty on the head of Tim McCracken. He's the head coach and chief punk on that Syracuse team.”
Sports Announcer: “A bounty?”
Dunlop: “Yeah, a hundred bucks of my own money for the first of my guys who really nails that creep.”
I could go on for days about the memories I have of Newman and his sports roles, but these are just a few that stick out in my mind. Newman will be missed in all the roles he played, on and off the screen.