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Life in the fast lane; Newman lived life at full throttle
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It’s not often you remember something that happened to you 23 years ago as if were yesterday. Then again, it’s not often you meet someone like Paul Newman.

In 1985, I had one of the coolest and most memorable experiences of my life. At Trans-Am race at what was then called Sears Point International Raceway (now named Infineon. Don’t get me started), I met Cool Hand Luke.

At that time, Newman was a Hollywood icon — a legend amongst actors. Other actors of his generation — Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, James Dean and Steve McQueen to name a few — all carried a certain mystique. They were the epitome of cool. The latter two along with Newman shared a passion for racing. I understand why.

Newman had an affinity for auto racing. He picked up the interest after his role in the 1969 movie "Winning." The timing was perfect. The ‘70's and ‘80's were the golden age of auto racing. Sports car racing was huge and Indy Car Racing captured the imagination of millions of Americans, especially each May at Indianapolis. AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti were true heroes, not thugs that made a buck through an overhyped media.

The Can-Am and Trans-Am series featured factory sponsored cars from all over the world. Porsche, Datsun (later branded as Nissan), Pontiac, Jaguar and Ford Motorcraft all participated in Sports Car Club Association sanctioned events throughout the United States and Canada.

Newman spent most of his racing days in the Trans-Am series and became known for driving the No. 33 factory sponsored Datsun Z. I met him on a Sunday, hours before the race. He was a nice man. I had only seen him on TV so I didn’t know what to expect. He was a small man in stature but a huge presence at the track.

Wearing those patented large sunglasses, Newman walked around the pit area as his team prepared his car for the race. He talked to fans as if they were racing buddies.

People didn’t flock to see him like one might expect. It was more curiosity than anything. He was a capable racer but the guys to beat that day were the Roush Motorcraft drivers Chris Kneifel, Willy T. Ribbs and 23-year sensation Wally Dallenbach Jr.

In those days fans were allowed to walk through the paddock area and touch the cars. Teams would let you stand right there as they pulled body panels away and tuned the engines. There were no fancy garages and air conditioned luxury suites you see today and sponsorship was in its infancy. Some teams had major corporate sponsors like the Löwenbräu Porsche 962 team, but racing was still primarily funded by the car manufactures or privateers. Racing was pure.

Sports cars are magnificent. The streamline body work — the low profile, super wide slick tires — the lowered stances — it all screams aggressive speed. The smell of alcohol fuel and burning brakes is intoxicating. Once you love racing, it becomes an addiction.

Newman finished that race in the middle of the pack after his car lost a cylinder and was down on power. Ribbs won the race and Dallenbach would go on to capture the 1985 title and become the youngest champion in series history.

One year later, my father took me to see Pink Floyd in concert at the Oakland Coliseum. That probably ranks as the coolest thing we did together. But I’ll never forget the days we spent at the track. Maybe that’s why I remember the details of my meeting with Newman so vividly. It’s funny how that works.

Newman would win the 24 Hours at Daytona and place second at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in his racing career. Later, he would become a successful car owner in the CART series where he won eight championships with Mario and son Michael Andretti as notable drivers.

Newman acted in only 16 movies from 1986 until his death last week. He’s probably most well known for his line of food products that bears his name and face or as Doc Hudson in the Disney animated film "Cars." Racing is the only sport where the athlete and machine work together in perfect harmony to achieve victory. It’s no wonder Paul Newman spent the last 39 years of his life emersed in racing.

He once said auto racing was the only purely graceful sport and I have to agree. Who knows what will happen with racing in the future. I’m afraid that unless someone can come up with a way for race cars to travel at 230 m.p.h. while running on trash and used cooking oil, auto racing may go the way of the do do bird.

The Can-Am series folded in 1974, Trans-Am followed in 2006 and the Indy/CART split has been well documented. With peak oil inevitable, the future looks dim.Who knows, maybe someday cars will run on Newman’s Own Sockarooni pasta sauce. Wouldn’t that be fitting? Maybe then people wouldn’t complain about the exhaust fumes. Imagine that.