A "low-buck gypsy" from Texedo, Md., is turning back actor Paul Newman's bid to win a Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Northeast divisional title. Don Kearney, "51 going on 20", has driven his Mazda to 52 points in five races to lead the c production class. Another Mazda man, Randy Pollock, is second with 38; Newman trails in his Datsun with 18.

All three meet Aug. 9 at Summit Point, W.Va., in the Trak Auto Summer Nationals. Eight 50-mile races over the 12-turn course pay off with points leading to invitations to the championship runoffs this fall.

It has been "nothing but good" since Kearney moved here from Florida to open an auto repair shop about four years ago. Last year, Mazda selected him to race a factory-supported car.

"They sent me a car, parts, a manual in Japanese and told me to go racing," said a laughing Kearney. "This year they sent a very nice check and will give me a good discount on parts. The season's almost over but I have more than half of that check still left."

Apart from Mazda's help, Kearney has been a small-budget racer all his 35 years in the sport. He does his own mechanical work, with expert help from his daughter and two part-timers. The car is towed on an open trailer by an 11-year-old camper.

Remarkably consistent, he has earned bids to the title runoffs in 16 of the 17 years the meet has been contested. Just as consistently, he never has won a national title. Newman has won two.

"In fact, I have never won a race at Road Atlanta, where they have held the runoffs the past 10 years," said Kearney. "I was praying they would move the meet to another track this year."

Kearney is generous in his praise of his chief rival. "Paul's a fine competitor. I just think i'm a better one," he says.