Stalking Paul Newman at NASCAR

Crap I Think About, David Thiel, Paul Newman, Onoway, zip lining, Brazil, Danger is NOT My Middle Name, Commentary, Humor, Crap, Crap I Think, street people, elk, editorial, deep crappy thoughts
I wrote this in 2008 when the world was a better place...because Paul Newman was still in it. I remember sitting at home doing a little...what else? thinking...

...I am going to get THE definitive picture of Paul Newman, I decide. I am filled with what writers call “steely determination.” (I am not entirely sure what “steely determination” is – but it seems to fit. Especially the “steely” part. I am definitely feeling “steely.”)

I am going to photograph a Hollywood legend. Star of The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – the original Cool Hand Luke. Close personal friend of Liz Taylor….yup…that Paul Newman.

THIS is the year. My year.

I am armed with a liter and a half of the World’s Most Expensive Grand Prix water (three bucks a bottle!), my trusty Minolta DiMAGE Z3 and a recently acquired Pit Walk Pass.

The Pit is aptly named, I decide. It smells like someone is cooking old fish, but that may just be the interaction of burning rubber and motor oil. The Pit crackles with a well rehearsed but nonetheless frenzied activity. But I will not be distracted.  I know that Newman Haas Racing is sponsored by the Golden Arches. So I am looking for McDonald’s.

I creep along the Pit Walk, every sense tingling – my entire being fixed on the Goal, finger quivering over my shutter button, camera poised. I am a hunter. My steely eyes narrow against the glare of the sun.

THIS is the year….

“Did you see him?” my wife asks. At first the voice sounds far away. I process the words.

“See who?” I ask back. There is a sinking sensation starting somewhere deep inside.

“Paul Newman,” she says, using the patient wife voice.

“What?” There’s a whiney quality in my voice that is most unfitting to a Great Hunter.

“Paul Newman. He just drove by on a red scooter.”

“What?” (‘What’ is one of those words that never fail you. So I say it again.) “What?”

My wife sighs and looks off into the distance. I suspect she is trying to decide if it is worth repeating to me without any visual aids or a suitably large collection of Crayons.

“Paul Newman just rode by on a red scooter.”

An image of Butch Cassidy doing charming tricks on a bike to a giggling-way-too-hot Katherine Ross comes to mind. A red scooter?

“Ah. He’s here then,” I respond as my mind jerks itself back to reality. It’s one of those sentences you start and midway through; you realize that it’s going to make you sound seriously stupid, so you try to turn it into a joke, which I do by rakishly raising my left eyebrow significantly.

My wife knows me too well and simply heaves a tired sigh and looks off in another direction.

“A red scooter?” I ask. You kind of expect Paul Newman to arrive in a limo, preceded by at least seven rose petal tossing flower girls and a couple of heralds playing those long trumpet thingies.

My wife nods. She is growing disinterested. I can tell this by the way her eyes glaze over and take on that far off quality as she looks in every direction but mine.

“I know where he went,” says she.

“You do?” I ask. I absolutely firmly resolve that this will be my LAST lame question of the century.

“You want to know or not?”

I nod with a weakly affected boredom. Slyly, I wish to convey the impression that I know exactly where Paul Newman is…and am simply testing her to see if she is worthy to make the trek with me.

She sighs.


I pause and cleverly snap a quick shot of the only female racer,  Katherine Legge, on pre-race trip to the porta-potty. I am, after all, the Great Hunter.

My wife has disappeared. I trail after her…or more precisely…where I think she may have gone.

I locate her. She points and says: “There he is.”

“Where?” I ask.

She points to the back of a white head in a red hat sitting high in a red booth.

“There?” I ask. I am already breaking that last-lame-question-of-the-century thing.

She nods.

I place my Lowepro bag at my feet, take off the water cooler and settle into my Hunter’s Blind. I wait.

Cars drive by.

I wait.

Cars come into the pit and gaily costumed men in helmets use mysterious but very loud machines for fifteen or twenty seconds. When the cars drive off, the people in the stands applaud.

Uh huh.

I wait.

I see Paul is drinking unflavored Dasani water. I watch him drain the bottle. Okay well actually…I see the bottle tilt upward, held in a really old hand…and get drained. You can almost see Newman’s lips. I shrewdly snap off a couple of quick shots. You can never tell when someone will want a picture of Newman’s lips.

Time passes.

“Is that him?” asks a woman as she waddles up. She sounds breathless, but it could be either the heat or gas, I decide. She smells unpleasantly of hot dogs.

“Yup,” I say, noting she is trying to use her bulk to shove her way into my portion of green fence.

I look significantly at her and then down at the Lowepro bag in front of me…then back at her. “This place is mine,” my look says. “See? There’s my bag and water cooler and everything.”

She ignores me and toes my bag back a few inches. She shoves herself more firmly into my area and peers around. I think she may be nearsighted.

“I don’t see him,” she sniffs.

I am torn: Do I tell her the truth and win her respect…or simply let her think I am a misguided-but-well-meaning-fellow-groupie so maybe she’ll go away?

I decide.

“Guess not,” I say, using my most sheepish expression.

She sniffs again and waddles off.

A hand grasps the edge of the booth…a white shoed foot steps out….PAUL NEWMAN is coming out of the BOOTH!

I grab my camera and set it to my eye. I wait seven years for the little red square and the reassuring “ting” sound that tells me I am focused.

Where is he going? What is he doing? you can tell by the image at the top of this page...I got my shot. But it wasn't easy. Guess what? The story, in all it's soul jarring detail, is told in the book.