On this day in 1969, the legendary actor, philanthropist and automobile enthusiast Paul Newman makes his onscreen racing debut in the action-drama film “Winning.”
By the time he made “Winning,” the blue-eyed Newman was already famous for his performances in such films as “The Hustler” (1960), “Hud” (1962) and “Cool Hand Luke” (1967). The same year “Winning” was released, Newman paired with Robert Redford in the blockbuster hit “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” In “Winning,” Newman played Frank Capua, a struggling race car driver who must turn around his fortunes by winning the biggest race of them all—the Indianapolis 500—and in the process avoid losing his wife (played by Newman’s real-life spouse, Joanne Woodward) to his biggest rival, Luther Erding (Robert Wagner). Newman and Wagner attended racing school to prepare for their action scenes, and Newman reportedly performed many of the racing scenes himself, without a stunt driver.
Three years after making the film, Newman launched a racing career of his own, driving a Lotus Elan in his first Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) race in 1972. In the mid-1970s, he joined a racing team, and they finished in fifth place in the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1977. Newman’s personal best finish was second place in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1979; he drove a Porsche 935. In 1980, Newman talked to Sports Illustrated about his entry into racing after “Winning”: “I found I had enjoyed the precision of it, of controlling those cars… I could see it would be a gas to do something like that really well.”
With the car magnate Carl Haas, Newman co-founded a racing team (now known as Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing) that would compile a record of more than 100 wins on the Indy racing circuit from 1983 to 2008. Newman also remained an active competitor in endurance racing, making his last start in 2006 in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway. In addition to his acting and racing prowess, Newman turned Newman’s Own, a small salad-dressing company he started in 1982, into a retail empire that would eventually generate more than $220 million in charitable donations and expand to include popcorn, pasta sauces, salsas and fruit drinks. He died in September 2008, at the age of 83, after a battle with cancer.