As far as Paul Newman is concerned, the public can see him in his movies, but they had better leave him alone when he dons his red fireproof racing suit and his yellow-tinted sunglasses and climbs into his Datsun. This weekend at the Summit Point Raceway in the green sultry hills of West Virginia, Newman placed first in two races with his Datsun 200-SX and 280-ZX at the Sports Car Club of America's Bonus National.
At the raceway he signed no autograph albums, granted no interviews and his clear, ice-blue eyes never focused on the gawkers who stood in the muck from the day's rain to stare at celebrity.
Newman allowed the public only one sanctioned view of himself when he posed with the muscular dystrophy child and Betsy Bott, the reigning Miss Virginia, in front of his racing car yesterday.
When Newman emerged from his air-conditioned mobile home -- in very short cut-offs and and rubber thongs -- a man in the audience lifted his son onto his shoulders for a look at the star. Newman squatted down next to the little boy in the wheelchair, who was dressed in a shirt with the red and white logo of the Seven-Eleven store chain, sponsors of the muscular dystrophy campaign. Newman squinted indifferently at the clicking and worrying cameras, asked the little boy how he was, and then glanced at Miss Virginia's back, at her 44-inch-long Lady Godiva hair.
"Big stuff in the back," he said to no one in particular. Miss Virginia just kept smiling;
Newman is quite serious about his racing, which he began in 1972 after playing a race-car driver in "Winning." And everyone agrees that he has proven himself in the past seven years. In the last three months, Newman has won first place in 12 of the 14 races he has entered at eight SCCA competitions. And he came in second at this year's Le Mans endurance race.
"He's excellent, consistent, steady and fast," said one of the seven women drivers at Summit Point this weekend. Jim Fitzgerald, one of Newman's keenest competitors and a racing friend, said "Newman is an agressive driver. He'll stick his nose in front of you in a tight position and he'll beat you breaking around the turns."
But Newman refuses to talk about his racing. Standing in his mobile home, he quietly but insistently said, "What would I say to other people if I said yes to you? I'd pull my finger out of the dike and there's no stopping the deluge."
Newman and his seven-man crew are with Bob Sharp Racing, sponsored by Budweiser, Datsun and others. Barry Calder, who drives the transport truck, said it's taboo to talk to Newman about racing. "The guy's trying to rest -- we don't bother him," he said. The crew members call him Paul, but they say it with a slight intake of breath.
Saturday evening, after the time trials, Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, joined the crew and several drivers for a hamburger cookout between the mammoth Bob Sharp truck and a neighboring van. The drivers and Woodward seemed to be the only ones at ease with Newman, though none of the drivers offered him a sip of the 100-proof alcohol they were passing around in a styrofoam cup. To some people, Paul Newman is just one of the guys.