Sunday, September 28, 2008

Rain and mud? No problem for Paul Newman, 'Humpy' Wheeler recalls

When it came to Paul Newman’s passion for racing, Humpy Wheeler was an unapologetic enabler.

Wheeler, the longtime president and general manager of Lowe’s Motor Speedway who now runs his own motorsports consulting company, said Newman was one of the most fascinating people he has met.

“I first met him in 1966 on the set of ‘Winning.’” Wheeler said, referring to the movie that fired Newman’s love for racing. “When he met you he looked you right in the eye like you were the most important person in the world and he heard you out.”

Wheeler said that when Newman, who died Friday evening, was at the race track he was a racer above all else.

“Paul was a humble, nice guy who loved his racing friends,” Wheeler said. “He really didn't like all the Hollywood stuff, but he did regard his profession as an art form to be taken very seriously.”

Newman certainly took his racing seriously.

The actor and philanthropist had a Legends car that Wheeler kept for him at the Charlotte track in 1995.

“He called me one day and said he had a break from the movie he was making and wanted to fly down and run his car,” Wheeler said. “I told him the weather looked awful but he came anyway.”

Wheeler took Newman to a small one-fifth mile paved oval located outside the backstretch side of the 1.5-mile oval.

“I forgot he was here and two hours later with rain pouring I heard this Legends car running full-blast,” Wheeler said. “I whipped over to the track and there he was sliding around the wet oval running pretty fast. …He pulled in, soaked and smiling.”

Wheeler said he noticed that Newman’s lap times in the rain were only about two seconds off the dry track record at the time.

“That is when I decided to run Legends Summer Shootout series rain or shine,” Wheeler said. “It became the first series in oval racing history to run rain or shine and still does.”

Newman and Wheeler both had voice parts in the animated film “Cars” that had its premiere at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in 2006. Newman voiced the character of Doc Hudson, based on the fabulous Hudson Hornets that ran in NASCAR’s early years.

When it came time to stage the premiere at the Charlotte track, Disney brought in a car with a Hudson body built around a racing truck.

“Paul grabbed me and said he wanted to run it around the big track,” Wheeler said. “It had a half-mile track gear in it. Disney didn't want anyone driving it because they wanted it for the premiere, but Paul kept bugging me to do something.”

Wheeler tried to convince Newman that the gearing was wrong. But Newman knew that Wheeler could get the right gear from one of the driving schools at the track.

“So I borrowed a gear from the driving school and he took off at the tender age of 81, wide-open around the big track sliding all over the place,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler turned to diversionary tactics.

“I flagged him in and told him I had a Thunder Roadster for him to drive all afternoon on the dirt track, which he loved,” Wheeler said. “He left the big track and drove for three hours on the dirt on ended up looking like Hondo with all that red clay on him. The evening ended with frosty beers in my office.”

Wheeler said he will miss Newman greatly.

“I actually believe he could have been a pretty good (Sprint) Cup driver had he taken it up in his 20s,” Wheeler said. “But, then, where would the Oscars be?”


Who said...

Above all else Newman loved racing because behind the wheel it did not matter that he was Paul Newman the film star. Behind the wheel you are only as good as you are. You have it or you don't. And he had it. I remember watching him run SCCA races.

Good Journey Paul. Thanks for sharing your talents with us.

Anonymous said...

A very well told story. It's so hard to believe that Paul Newman is no longer among us. The first film I ever saw him in was The Left Handed Gun at the old Imperial Theater on Tryon Street. Must've been about 1957 or 1958. Time passes, and now he's gone.

He will live on through his films and his philanthropy. We will never forget him.

blpadge2 said...

Godspeed Mr. Newman. How about looking the Intimidator up and run a few laps.

I still remember the time you got into one of his cars at Daytona and ran fast enough to qualify.

The Boni Family said...

Awesome story. Thank you so much for it.

rdhdtrue "red"

Nick Doyle said...

David --

Thanks for a terrific story.

Paul Newman was a gentleman first and a racer and film star (of the old school) second.

We'll all miss him.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Newman was good friends with my former employer, Don Panoz. Don brought him by one day and I thought "Who's the old homeless-looking guy?". He was wearing ragged jeans, a plain white tee-shirt, and high-tops. When Don introduced us I told him that I enjoyed watching him race and he seemed to appreciate that.
Later I worked at the Panoz Le Mans team and from time to time he would come to Road Atlanta when we tested. Once the work was done he would hit the track and do lap after lap.
He was a really nice guy.

Robbie Mac said...

Thanks David and Humpy for sharing this. Mr. Newman was an outstanding human being whose contributions off screen far outweigh the amazing work he did on screen.

Anonymous said...

What a great story. Thanks, David and Humpy, for sharing.

And thanks, Mr. Newman, for the memories.

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