The image that I'll cherish of Paul Newman doesn't come from the silver screen, but rather the crowded paddocks of the Champ Car World Series, where Newman owned the open-wheel auto racing series' top team (Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing). Newman was a ubiquitous presence at Champ Car races, but you spent more time ducking out of his way than chatting him up. He darted around on his red motor scooter with reckless abandon as he moved quickly from his team transporters to pit lane.
Newman, who died on Friday at age 83, wasn't some rich guy who owned an open-wheel racing team to stroke his ego. He raced cars and shaped his team into Champ Car's premier unit, because he loved the sport—and loved to win. His team claimed the 1984 Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART, which would become Champ Car) title with Mario Andretti, then did it again with Michael Andretti (1991), Nigel Mansell (1993), Cristiano da Matta (2002) and Sebastien Bourdais (2004-2007). Not surprisingly, in the first season of the unified 2008 IndyCar Series, Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing was the only transitioning Champ Car team that recorded victories, with Graham Rahal (St. Petersburg) and Justin Wilson (Detroit).
Last summer, at the Champ Car event in Edmonton, Newman strapped himself into a modified two-seat Formula One car and took a spin around the tricky-to-navigate circuit with Mario Andretti behind the wheel. Newman still exuded a true cool hand as he asked Mario to put the pedal to the metal, hitting up to 170 miles per hour. I'll never forget the look of anticipation and satisfaction on his face before and after the ride. The thrill was still there.
As much as he loved racing, nothing excited Newman more than talking about his Hole in the Wall Camps, the world's largest family of camps for children with serious illnesses and life-threatening conditions. I made a point to visit one early this year, after a Champ Car test session in Sebring, Florida, and I brought along my two children, Jake and Sophie. I didn't want them to think of Paul Newman as just the guy with his face on our salad dressing or the voice of racing legend Doc Hudson in Cars.
The paddocks might be a safer place without him next season, but they also will feel much more empty.