September 29th, 2008
09:28 PM ET

When I met Paul Newman

I'm a fortunate man. Paul Newman once gave me an interview.

It was the summer of 2003 and he had left his home in Connecticut to come to Long Beach, California, to see his racing team compete in the annual Grand Prix. He was 78 at the time but hadn't given up racing cars himself, although he was not behind the wheel that day.

We sat down for a chat as the race cars roared around the course nearby, producing a sound I can only liken to a million bees buzzing violently in your ear. The sound was visceral and exciting - it was the first time I really understood the power and thrill of auto racing.

Newman wore those kind of "Blue Blocker" teardrop-shaped sunglasses just low enough on his nose that his famous blue eyes peered above them. He was not the kind of star who felt the need to put on false bonhomie with an interviewer. Yet he was generous with his time.

We talked about his passion for racing, which had been ignited decades earlier while shooting the movie "Winning" about an up-and-coming race car driver. He told me the feeling he got from driving a race car was "very close to sex. Something seductive. The cars themselves are almost immoral."

He said racing satisfied the competitive side of his nature, which could never be completely fulfilled by acting.

"It's hard to be competitive about acting because there are so many unknowns. Who's to say that one performance is better than another actor's?" he told me.

Newman did not like to be fussed over and the impression I got from my time with him is that he enjoyed the camaraderie of his racing cohorts because they didn't treat him like a big deal. Despite the adrenaline-fueled atmosphere of the track, Newman, paradoxically, could relax there.

He told me he had tried other sports such as tennis and skiing, but discovered the perfect fit in a race car cockpit.

"I have no physical grace at all," he said without any self-consciousness. "You can check my wife's feet if you don't believe me. Every time I dance with her, they're crushed."

He was polite and pleasant during our interview, laconic at times and expansive when talking about the particulars of what makes a great race car driver. After the interview he hopped aboard a fire red scooter to make his getaway. Crowds gathered around as he maneuvered the vehicle and he looked uncomfortable with all those eyes directed on him. Then he hit the gas, the crowd parted and he sped away toward the track. There was a big smile on his face. He was liberated by speed.

- Matt Carey, CNN Entertainment Producer

Editor's note: The original post said Mr. Newman was in Long Beach for a Formula One race. It was a CART race. The sentence has been edited.

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