Love for winning fueled Newman's passion on the racetrack

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Acting was Paul Newman's profession. Auto racing was his passion.

Newman died Friday night at age 83. To most of the world, Newman was known as one of our country's most accomplished actors.

To the racing world, he was known as a man who truly loved the sport. In fact, he lived for it. He became a respected driver and a successful team owner in Indy-car racing in the second half of his life.

People often wondered what it was about racing that captured his heart. It was the same thing that made him a great actor: He loved winning.

"His pure joy of winning exemplified the spirit he brought to his life," said longtime racing partner Carl Haas. "That was clear to all those who knew him."

Newman was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning one for Best Actor ("The Color of Money") and later being awarded two honorary Oscars.

Racing came later in Newman's life. For most of the past four decades, it was the one thing that consistently brought him joy.

He didn't just do it for fun. Newman finished second in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1979. His open-wheel team, which he founded with Haas in 1983, won eight CART/Champ Car championships.

Some of the best racers in open-wheel racing history drove for Newman over the years, including Mario and Michael Andretti, Sebastien Bourdais and Nigel Mansell. Graham Rahal, the son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, is the rising star of the team now.

Newman saw the sport as his release from the politics and endless hype of the movie business.

"Racing is the best way I know to get away from the rubbish of Hollywood," he told People magazine in 1979.

Newman got the racing bug in 1969 after making the film "Winning" when he played a driver competing in the Indianapolis 500. Newman often said he fell in love with The Brickyard making that movie.

He continued his brilliant acting career, but racing gradually took over as the dominant activity in his life. After competing in amateur events for six years, Newman became a professional racer in 1977.

He drove and won in sports car road racing, often entering events under the name P.L. Newman, hoping people wouldn't know who he was. That rarely worked, but it showed how racing was an outlet from his public image.

When Newman-Haas Racing was born, Newman's association with Haas, a Chicago native who began racing sports cars in 1952, was a partnership that developed into a lasting friendship.

"We've lost a great human being," Haas said. "We've been partners for 26 years and I've come to know his passion, his humor and, above all, his generosity. Not just economic generosity, but his generosity of spirit."

Newman was a great example of giving back. He founded the food company Newman's Own, which has donated all its profits to charity, more than $200 million to date.

Two-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart said it was Newman's philanthropic endeavors that made him stand out among racers.

"Paul was a phenomenal individual," Stewart said. "We connected as racers, but his ideas on charity are what resonated with me the most. He did things right and he did them with class."

But Newman also was an opinionated man who stood up for his beliefs. He was a dedicated Democrat and often spoke for Democratic candidates.

He also was hard-liner for many years over the open-wheel split that began in 1996, believing IRL founder Tony George was responsible for the long feud between CART and George's new league.

The one goal in racing Newman didn't accomplish was a victory in the Indy 500. His team didn't compete in the race for several years after the split. Even when the team returned to Indy, Newman stayed home, refusing to set foot on the hallowed grounds because of his bitter feelings for George.

Newman did return to Indy in 2007, making an appearance at the NASCAR event. The two open-wheel leagues merged this season and Newman was back at the Indy 500 for the first time in 12 years, finally making peace with George.

The entire racing community, including NASCAR, was saddened at the news of Newman's passing. Many open-wheel fans didn't know Newman also enjoyed watching NASCAR.

He was the narrator of the movie "Dale,'' the documentary film of Dale Earnhardt's life. And he was the voice of the old Hudson Hornet in the animated movie "Cars," which also involved Richard Petty.

Two-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said Newman even drove a Hendrick Motorsports car.

"We had a deal when Rick [Hendrick] would put a restrictor-plate on a car and let a few people drive it with half horsepower," Johnson said. "Paul was amazing. He would get out there on sticker tires and run really quick laps."

Johnson said just being in Newman's presence was something he's glad he got to experience. Newman was famous for his blue eyes, but Johnson said he saw something more in those eyes than color.

"He impressed the heck out of me," Johnson said. "Paul knew a lot more about NASCAR racing than people realized. But the one thing I remember most about him was the spark in his eye when he was at the track."

The birth of a child, a spouse on your wedding day, a championship won. It's that look someone gets when they feel contentment and true joy.

Newman found that in racing, and many people in racing found it in him.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.