'Greased Lightning' Bob's Excellent Adventure

Who knew that conservative pundit Robert Novak looks so good in a racing jumpsuit?

The 72-year-old Novak -- whom we used to call "Road Rage Bob" because of his penchant for delivering profanity-laced tirades to troublesome pedestrians while zipping around Washington in his black Corvette convertible -- has been down at the Panoz Racing School in Sebring, Fla., learning how to drive a 275-horsepower Panoz GT-RA custom car.

"I've wanted to be a race car driver all my life, and anyone who has watched me drive can tell you that," Novak told us during a break from a rigorous three-day training course that ends this afternoon. "It's never too late." Novak insisted that the "road rage" business "was a figment of your imagination," and in any case we hear that a big grin is plastered on his face as he rounds the track at a prudent 80 mph.

"That's not a high speed for me, but what's thrilling is riding in a race car," Novak said. "It is a great thrill at my age to drive a race car around on hairpin turns on the Sebring International Raceway -- one of the most famous in the world."

Novak -- who won the racing lessons, plus a "guaranteed ride" at the 2003 Grand Prix at RFK Stadium, by bidding more than $3,000 at a charity auction -- said his wife, Geraldine, "is with me and she's not a happy camper." The Grand Prix, originally scheduled for June, was canceled "because the weenies in D.C. said it made too much noise -- so there's no race for me to ride in," Novak complained. "But I still get the three days' driver's training."

Trouble in Cooperstown

* The knuckleballs are flying hard and fast between "Bull Durham" star Tim Robbins and Baseball Hall of Fame President Dale Petroskey over the latter's decision to cancel a 15th-anniversary celebration of the beloved movie because of Robbins's wartime criticism of President Bush.

Robbins -- who in 1999 donated his pitcher's uniform from the movie to the Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., and, more recently, threatened to find us and hurt us -- had agreed to attend the weekend extravaganza set for April 26 and 27. But on Wednesday, Petroskey, a former deputy White House press secretary for Ronald Reagan, publicly released his April 7 letter accusing the liberal actor of engaging in irresponsible, dangerous rhetoric.

"We believe your very public criticism of President Bush at this important -- and sensitive -- time in our nation's history helps undermine the U.S. position, which ultimately could put our troops in even more danger," went Petroskey's missive, which was sent to members of the media before it arrived at Robbins's New York office. "As an institution, we stand behind our President and our troops in this conflict." Thus the cancellation.

Alerted to Petroskey's letter by Sports Illustrated, Robbins fired back via his own open letter: "Your subservience to your friends in the administration is embarrassing to baseball and by engaging in this enterprise you show that you belong with other cowards and ideologues in a hall of infamy and shame. Long live democracy, free speech and the '69 Mets."

Both Kevin Costner, who co-starred with Robbins and Susan Sarandon, and Ron Shelton, the movie's writer-director, came to Robbins's defense yesterday. "I think Tim and Susan's courage is the type of courage that makes our democracy work," said Costner, a Republican. "Pulling back this invite is against the whole principle about what we fight for and profess to be about." Shelton said, "The Hall of Fame's position is ridiculous, plain and simple."

THIS JUST IN...

* The launch of the war in Iraq forced the postponement of the Radio-Television Correspondents Association dinner last month. But the April 26 White House Correspondents' Association dinner will proceed as scheduled at the Hilton Washington, association president Bob Deans told us yesterday. President Bush has just confirmed that he'll attend with first lady Laura Bush, and Vice President Cheney and wife Lynne are also a good bet, Deans said, adding that the entertainment "is a surprise."

* That was Sean Puffy Puff Daddy P. Diddy Combs at Wednesday night's Wizards game, watching his friend Michael Jordan play one of his last home games at MCI Center, and later hobnobbing at Dupont Circle dance club MCCXXIII. A spokesman for the rap mogul told us: "It wasn't a formal party. Very casual with friends. He watched the game and then stayed in D.C., but came back to New York" yesterday morning.

* At the Cambridge, Mass., funeral for our colleague Michael Kelly -- who along with Army Staff Sgt. Wilbert Davis was killed in a Humvee accident April 3 while evading hostile fire in southern Iraq -- Brig. Gen. Robert Gaylord presented a commemorative coin bearing the seal of the secretary of the Army to Kelly's young sons, Tom and Jack. Hours later, during a reception at the Kelly home in Swampscott, Mass., 6-year-old Tom "took me by the hand, dragged me into his parents' room and proudly pulled out of a dresser drawer the seal," a guest told us.

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