Paul Newman: Close Encounters of the First Kind

Paul Newman: Close Encounters of the First Kind

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A new occasional column about my chance encounters with famous people. Today’s story is about actor (and race car driver) Paul Newman.

On display in this 2011 photo is Paul Newman Racing's 1979 Spyder NF-11 Chevrolet V8, CanAm single seater racer based on Lola T333CS. (Flickr image via Wikipedia entry on Paul Newman, CC 2.0)

CHARLOTTE, N.C., Feb. 1, 2016 – More than three decades ago, when I first became afflicted with that incurable, contagious disease known as “wanderlust,” I frequently heard my colleagues talking about something called the Century Club. I came to learn that many travel writers and travelers themselves aspired to attaining the goal of visiting 100 countries or more.

For years it was my belief that “The Traveler’s Century Club” was a mythical organization that simply represented a milestone for frequent travelers to achieve. Eventually I discovered there is an actual California-based Century Club that even has its own website despite its existence as a loosely configured group.

After accumulating enough countries myself to believe that I, too, could become a member of this unique and elite group, I set about establishing my own guidelines for being admitted. To date, my total is 73 countries. Though those elusive other 27 may be out of reach, I continue in my quest.

As a sidebar to the travel aspect of trekking to 100 different countries, it occurred to me that I had also been fortunate enough during my own travels to meet a large group of well-known people from all facets of life. When I counted them up, I realized I had actually met 93 celebrities. That means that the possibility of entering “The Celebrity Century Club” is definitely within my grasp.

Many of those chance meetings I’ve run into have little personal vignettes associated with them. So, in an occasional effort to share these nuggets of momentary close personal encounter, I will pen a column from time to time entitled “Close Encounters of the First Kind.”

I begin my series today with actor, entrepreneur, activist and racing enthusiast Paul Newman.

Daytona Beach has long been one of stock car racing’s most prized venues. In fact, unlike other sports where the biggest event comes at the end of the season, when the green flag drops each February for the Daytona 500, it is the most coveted prize in stock car racing that’s being contested.

In 1969, while training at Watkins Glen Racing School for a film called “Winning,” Paul Newman became a racing enthusiast, a passion that would last until the end of his life in 2008.

Though color-blind, Newman said that motorsports was “the first thing that I ever found I had any grace in.” While his legions of fans, both male and female, might disagree, Newman himself became an accomplished stock car driver and team owner. In fact, in 1979, Newman finished second overall in the 24-hours of Le Mans and was first in class.

Newman’s first race as a driver came in 1972, when he entered the event under the name “P.L. Newman,” which became his racing moniker. During the ’70s, Newman frequently competed in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) events and won four national championships. In addition, Newman sponsored race teams and won several SCCA open wheel Indy Car championships.

Long before ESPN came into existence, stock car racing was televised, but never from green flag to checkered. Time was allotted to cover the final half of a race because television executives opined that given the technology of the day, it would be impossible to retain an audience for the entire 500-mile event.

Football, baseball and basketball were the dominant sports of the era at that time. But even they had limited coverage that was pretty much relegated to weekends. However, the ABC television network was in the process of changing all that, inspired by the the genius of producer Roone Arledge who helped launch “Monday Night Football,” which began in 1970. Nearly a decade earlier, in 1961, Arledge had created the popular international sports showcase called “Wide World of Sports.” Now he was kicking things up a notch.

Since stock racing venues held a maximum of two major races in any given year, speedways like Daytona and Charlotte would frequently have other racing events for a couple of weeks leading up to their marquee prime time race.

It was under these circumstances that I met Paul Newman, while I was on assignment in Florida to cover the Daytona 500 for a CBS television affiliate in Charlotte, North Carolina.

At that point, the stock cars were finishing up their practice sessions as the more exotic sports cars were preparing to take to Daytona’s road course. I had just completed my stand-up report about the 500 race when I turned to my left and spotted Newman, who was decked out in a cream-colored, fireproof racing uniform.

He was talking to his crew and making last-minute adjustments to his car when I approached. Had I not been working as a reporter, I probably would never have considered asking for an interview. But the film camera (there was no video in that era) gave me the added confidence I needed to make my approach.

Newman was extremely fit, though smaller and shorter in stature than I had expected he would be. His graying hair gave him a countenance of wisdom and, of course, his legendary, magnetic blue eyes were just as piercing in real life as they were on the silver screen.

“Mr. Newman,” I said, “I’m a reporter from a television station in North Carolina. Would it be possible to do a quick interview with you?”

Newman looked through me with his steely blue eyes and said, “We’re getting ready to do some practice runs right now, but if you hurry I’ll be happy to do it. There’s one stipulation though. You can ask me about racing. I don’t want to talk about acting.”

With that I interviewed one of the most famous actors the world has ever known. Whether you called him
“Hud,” “Hombre” or “Butch,” I happily thereafter referred to him as “P.L.”

Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.

Taylor is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (

Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod

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