I can’t offer any great insight into the life of Paul Newman, whose death was announced this weekend.
But I was lucky enough to sit next to him once – as he bounced an early ‘997’ generation Porsche 911 over the kerbs at Mondello Park for a charity event – and I confirm that his enthusiasm for cars, and his driving ability, were completely genuine.
I was meant to be interviewing him at a fundraising event for his ‘Hole in the Wall’ children’s charity. That plan failed when I got bundled into the car with a whirring dictaphone and, as an intensely private man, he politely declined the chance for a chat: “I’m just here to drive: I’m the fastest taxi driver in Ireland.”
The following five laps were a combination of impressive pace and a quiet, semi-private commentary as he acclimatised to the track and the car – “it always goes light there,” “faster through there”, “later on the brakes”.
Newman was certainly the quickest 79-year old I’ve ever sat next to – his pace was real, behind the cloak of the PASM stability control, he was balancing the car with the natural ease of the genuinely handy, heel-and-toeing his way down the gearbox perfectly.
The cooling-down lap gave the chance for some conversation about his enthusiasm for racing, the importance of his charity work “more important than acting? Definitely”, and his deeply improbable V8-engined Volvo.
As we coasted to a halt in the pits I asked him about the pleasure he took from piloting a car as quickly as he could around a racetrack. His answer will stay with me forever – delivered with blue eyes blazing over the rim of his sunglasses: “Driving? That just runs out of your toes. It’s just blissful.”