Paul Newman, the blue-eyed movie star-turned-race car driver, accomplishes the greatest feat of his racing career on this day in 1979, roaring into second place in the 47th 24 Hours of Le Mans, the famous endurance race held annually in Le Mans, France.
Newman emerged as one of Hollywood’s top leading men in the 1960s, with acclaimed performances in such films as “The Hustler” (1961), “Cool Hand Luke” (1967) and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969). Also in 1969, he starred in “Winning” as a struggling race car driver who must redeem his career and win the heart of the woman he loves–played by Newman’s real-life wife, Joanne Woodward–at the Indianapolis 500. To prepare for the movie, Newman attended racing school, and he performed many of the high-speed racing scenes in the movie himself, without a stunt double. In 1972, Newman began his own racing career, winning his first Sports Club Car of America (SCCA) race driving a Lotus Elan. He soon moved up to a series of Datsun racing sedans and won four SCCA national championships from 1979 to 1986.
Newman’s high point at the track came in June 1979 at Le Mans, where he raced a Porsche 935 twin-turbo coupe on a three-man team with Dick Barbour and Rolf Stommelen. His team finished second; first place went to two brothers from Florida, Don and Bill Whittington, and their teammate, Klaus Ludwig. Drama ensued during the last two hours of the race, when the Whittingtons’ car–also a Porsche 935–was sidelined with fuel-injection problems and it looked like Newman’s team could overtake them to grab the win. In the end, however, they had trouble even clinching second due to a dying engine. The Whittington team covered 2,592.1 miles at an average speed of 107.99 mph, finishing 59 miles ahead of Newman, Barbour and Stommelen.
After the race, The New York Times quoted the 54-year-old Newman as saying he might not race at Le Mans again: “I’m getting a bit long in the tooth for this. And my racing here places an unfortunate emphasis on the team. It takes it away from the people who really do the work.” In fact, he continued racing into his eighties, making his last start at the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway in 2006. He also found success as a race car owner, forming a team with Carl Haas that became one of the most enduring in Indy car racing. Newman died in September 2008 at the age of 83.