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Everything I learned about racing I learned from Paul Newman.
In the late 1990’s I had the pleasure of being the chief instructor for the North East Region of the Ferrari Club of America. I had a 308 GTB race car, but primarily drove BMW CCA, and Trackmasters events. I did a few Ferrari Club events here and there, but my skills on the track and my ability to instruct I got from BMW CCA driving schools. Those skills and the network of instructors I knew from instructing with various chapters of the BMW CCA got me the job. In 1997 I had a student at a FCA event who was an investment banker on Wall Street who had a .Com client that wanted to sponsor a couple of Challenge cars. I got some sponsorship dollars and did four races.
A word about the Ferrari Challenge, these guys are LOADED, I was totally out of their league. They would think nothing of wrecking a car and buying the spare car Ferrari North America brought with them so they could race the rest of the weekend. I once saw a driver wreck on his first lap out, the team had his spare car out of the trailer by the time he was back in the pits, he then took that one out and wrecked on the SECOND lap. More money than talent in some cases.
Now one of the interesting things that Ferrari North America would do is have celebrity drivers at races. Most had little to no clue about what they were doing but they had fun. At the Lime Rock race in 1998 we got a real treat. I was outside the Interlaken Inn with a friend when we hear this strange noise coming down the road. Up comes this Volvo station wagon with windows tinted so dark you could not see anyone in the car. The Volvo is making very un-Volvo like sounds. Out of the car comes Paul Newman, he is to be our celebrity racer for the weekend! “What do you have in that thing?” I ask. “Supercharged Ford 302.” was his reply.
The good thing about racing at Lime Rock was that I knew the track pretty well. We ran it with the chicane at the Uphill, because Ferrari Challenge drivers are nuts and this would slow them down and make it safer. I qualified well in the first race, just inside the top 10, but got hit in the passenger side wheel on the first lap bending my steering rack and putting me out of the race. Paul qualified very well (3rd I think) but an alternator failure stopped his race on lap 3. On the second day, here I sat at the back of the gird with Paul Newman beside me! My mechanic gave me the best advice of the weekend: “Follow Paul for as long as you can.”
The second race was great. We were 28th and 29th I tucked in behind Paul and we cut through the field. Paul’s driving was inch perfect, but his race craft was what really set him apart. In racing the rule is: you can zig, or you can zag, but you can’t zig and zag. Nobody ever told that to the Ferrari Challenge drivers and since the series was a “spec” series passing could be a challenge (pardon the pun). Paul would pressure the drivers into making mistakes. Never hit anyone, just a feint here or there and the drivers would take themselves off the track by over driving their cars. I finished the race 11th, Paul made it much further up the field 5th I think.
It was that race when I had the epiphany that to race really well you had to not be thinking about driving the car, you had to be thinking about your next move on the chess board. You looked for the weaknesses in the driver in front of you set them up and put them behind you. Watching Paul do that for several laps was a great lesson. I never spoke to him to thank him, but it was one heck of a weekend. I also got to race against and lap Formula 1 Sahara Force India team owner Vijay Mallya in his Kingfisher Beerari. But that is another story.