• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Saturday, September 27, 2008

REMEMBERING FRIENDS

WITH PAUL: In the pits at Long Beach, 1993.

A racer.

That's how I'll remember Paul Newman.

Unlike other celebrities who rocketed in-and-out of the motorsports' scene like Haley's comet, engaged only for endorsement or promotional reasons, Paul was as serious about racing as any champion or winning driver. Which, of course, he was. Newman, however, is best remembered as the original co-owner of Newman/Haas Racing, which dominated the Champ Car era of American open-wheel competition with the likes of Mario and Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell and Sebastien Bourdais.

I'll leave it to others to recount the facts and stats of Paul's incredible life, which cancer brought to an end Friday, at age 83. What I have to offer is personal perspective from my time, 1984-1987; 1989-1995 as Newman/Haas PR director.

* As Mario was closing in on the 1984 PPG Cup, Paul sought a good vantage point to watch the race at Laguna Seca, because you couldn't see much more than a passing flash from pit lane. ESPN operated from the roof of the media center and I arranged for Paul and his acting/racing buddy Michael Brockman to watch from up there. Paul returned the courtesy by going into the booth for a "live" interview with Bob Jenkins. Paul didn't travel with an entourage and was happy enough that I left him with a good view and a six-pack of Budweiser in a small cooler.

* In those days, heavy traffic on limited access roads made it pointless to try to rush out of Laguna after the race. So, a few of us sat in the motorcoach, watching a Ronald Reagan-Walter Mondale presidential campaign debate on TV. Paul and Mario were on opposite ends of the political spectrum and they reacted pro-or-con to what Reagan and Mondale had to say. Afterwards, Paul and Mario agreed it would be best never to discuss politics again, in order to preserve their friendship.

* On Monday, March 30, 1987, Newman won the Academy Award for Best Actor in the movie, The Color of Money. Paul didn't attend, but had asked Mario to go and accept the Oscar for him, if he won. Andretti agreed. The idea was scotched when officials told Newman only Academy members could do so. But, six days later, Paul joined Mario in victory lane at Long Beach.

* The 1992 Indy 500 was a terrible day for Newman/Haas. Mario crashed and had foot injuries. Jeff Andretti, driving for A.J. Foyt, had a hub failure and the accident left him with severe leg injuries. Michael dominated the race but broke in the closing laps. At Methodist Hospital, late that evening, Paul quietly mentioned he was hungry. I offered to get him something. To break the tension in the waiting room, he said: "Where can we go and get an All-American junko burger, you know, the kind with grease running out of it?" Our friend Bill Yeager suggested a dive near the Speedway called the Beverage Inn. The three of us went over and, in as unlikely a place as you could ever imagine to see a Hollywood legend, Paul enjoyed a burger and a Bud.

* It was Paul who coined Mansell's journey from Formula One world champion to CART PPG Cup titlist in 1993 as "The Great Adventure." Paul was at Phoenix International Raceway for Nigel's first test -- witnessed by 90 media from nine countries. At Long Beach, Mansell was a second quicker than anyone, and during qualifying Paul looked at that massive gap on the timing monitor and whispered to me, "That's embarrassing." I replied, "No, that's the way it should be." He smiled and laughed and said, "You're right! That's the way it should be!" Those with a keen eye could notice that, for years later, during Hollywood ceremonies, Paul was wearing his '93 championship ring.

* I was there at Indy in 1995 when Paul and Carl Haas sat down with Tony George in the heated atmospherics of the last pre-IRL/CART split 500. There's no need to recount the specifics now, other than to say Paul's concern was not racing politics, but to make sure the Speedway would allow quality food to be served to his mechanics in the garage area. Tony agreed. While Paul was CART's most vocal and passionate advocate, he became a believer in a reunified IndyCar Series, and, last March, allowed his name to go on a letter to previous Indy 500 ticket buyers, asking them to come back. It's a happy thing that Justin Wilson and Graham Rahal were able to win for Paul's team in the first reunified season. And that Tony George and the Speedway properly acknowledged Paul's passing.

* Paul knew I enjoyed researching racing historical trivia, and on many weekends he'd ask me, "What have you got for me?" I'd share some informational nugget and he'd delight in it . . . then go off and stump Roger Penske or Bobby Rahal or Chip Ganassi.

I once asked Paul for some guidance. He kindly took me into the privacy of the team motorcoach and taught me this: "Know your audience." And that humor was a powerful device to communicate a serious message.

For that, his kindness, and the great opportunity just to be around him, I say thank you to Paul Newman: A racer.
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Michael F. Hollander was my computer guru. He put up with my dumb questions about the Internet, told me what equipment to buy, and how to make it all work. When I hit a technical brick wall, he coached me via telephone on how to fix it. I couldn't have created this blog without his overly generous help.

Hollander, 61, died last Wednesday of cancer. Everyone who has ever written about racing online owes him a moment of respect and a silent prayer, because it was Mike who effectively invented online race news reporting. All the way back in the dark ages of 1979, he began posting real-time race news worldwide via the CompuServe Information Service. In September 1983, that evolved into the Auto Racing SIG and later into The Motor Sports Forum.

I remember, in the early 1980s, occasions when the AP's Mike Harris and I would have to argue with track PR directors to issue Hollander media credentials -- simply because they didn't know there was such a thing as online journalism.

Mike later authored two books and helped racing clients, including the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, while working at agencies. He was the longtime AARWBA western vice president and then national VP. His efforts on behalf of AARWBA members were incredible, including editing the All-America Team program book, and producing all the awards ceremony visuals. Mike was presented the Dusty Brandel President's Award, for service to AARWBA, two years ago. The truth is, he could have gotten that honor every year.

Mike was a Navy veteran, who served in Vietnam, and received numerous decorations.

A member of the Indianapolis 500 Oldtimers, Mike was able to travel from California to the great race last May, and attended the traditional AARWBA members' breakfast. I sat near him in the IMS media center race morning, watching the Monaco Grand Prix on TV, and -- as usual -- he was online, telling me about news from around the world.

Mike Hollander was a pioneer. It's almost impossible to remember a time when online motorsports journalism didn't exist. He made it happen for the rest of us. Thank you, Mike.
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Publicist Ron Meade, an original staff member of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, died last week. Going back to the 1970s, Ron was of assistance to me in a variety of roles, at Daytona and in sports car racing. I always appreciated his help.
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One of my very closest friends, Al Holbert, was killed 20 years ago when the private airplane he was piloting crashed moments after takeoff from Columbus, Ohio. It was Sept. 30, 1988. He was only 42. Over 1,000 people attended his funeral.

I covered Al extensively while at the Philadelphia Daily News, as the three-time Le Mans winner and multiple IMSA champion's Porsche dealership and team were based in nearby Warrington, Pa. Al is mostly remembered for his sports car excellence, but he also finished fourth in his only Indy 500 appearance, and was a respected driver in the NASCAR Winston Cup series.

In '88, I handled the PR for the Porsche CART team, which Al ran as director of Porsche Motorsport North America. I told him several times that he was too nice a person to be involved in racing. One lesson from Al's life is he proved good people can be successful.
One of the greatest gifts I've ever received came from Al: His trust in my ability.

Two days before his death, over lunch, we shook hands on a partnership in a PR/promotions/marketing company. That dream died with Al. Above, we're in one of our very typical candid one-on-one conversations, this at Pocono, that summer. I miss Al to this day. God Bless. (Photo courtesy of Dan R. Boyd.)


[ more Tuesday, Oct. 7 . . . ]