PLEASURES OF THE ROAD : TRACK STARS : Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Perry King and Lorenzo Lamas rap on racing

Finke is a Times staff writer

Sometimes their celebrity gets in the way of their racing. And sometimes their racing gets in the way of their celebrity. But for decades, fame-name Hollywood actors have eagerly jumped into the driving seat.

Paul Newman, James Garner and Steve McQueen led the way, becoming race-car drivers on film and in reality. Gene Hackman first got behind the wheel in "The French Connection;" Lorenzo Lamas worked his racing into TV scripts for "Falcon Crest," and Perry King did it merely for the heck of it. Now savvy movie studios are considering a new round of auto-racing epics that could star such box office heartbreakers as Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise.

Nearly all actors get started the same way--by being invited to drive in a celebrity race. From there, they might attend a professional driving school. After that, they vie for championships depending on what their competitive spirits, or their pocketbooks, can allow.

PAUL NEWMAN at age 62 is the grand old man of celebrity auto racers. Inarguably, no one has even come close to matching his level of fame in and out of the winner's circle.

By capturing enough honors in the past 15 years to earn him respect as a world-class driver, Newman has shocked not only his multitudes of fans but also the racing professionals. For years, in fact, the wins almost made up for his disheartening status as perpetual runner-up for the Best Actor Oscar--that is, until he finally captured the award in 1986 for his role in "The Color of Money."

Newman didn't get the racing bug until he played a driver in the 1969 film "Winning," a story centered on the Indianapolis 500. He was 47 when he took his first racing lessons at the Bob Bondurant racing school in Northern California. Since then, however, he has almost singlehandedly demonstrated that professional driving is not solely a young man's sport.

With his team headquarters located near his home in Westport, Conn., Newman travels around the country entering himself in Trans-Am Series races as "P. L. Newman." But his movie fans aren't fooled and follow him to the track faithfully. To escape their attention, the actor usually hides out inside a rented motor home. Despite racing in a fishbowl, he manages to be "one of the guys" alongside other drivers, who kid him about his advanced age. But the best jokes about it are made by Newman himself.

Tragically, Newman's long-time teammate and very close friend, 65-year-old Jim Fitzgerald, was killed in St. Petersburg, Fla., last November when he crashed his Nissan 300ZX Turbo in the early stages of a Grand Prix race that was closing out the Trans-Am season. Newman declines comment about the effect that Fitzgerald's death has had on him. "That's a private question," the actor says, "and I don't have a public answer for it."

There was talk after the accident that Newman might never race again. But the actor appears determined to keep doing what he's so good at doing--both on the track and on the screen. Just as Newman the actor is reluctant to talk about the details of his acting, so Newman the racer is reluctant to talk about the details of his racing.

"When Joanne and I did 'Winning' in 1969, I was captivated. I was just hooked. I guess I'm a man of whims and whimsy. But it took me about five years before I could find the time to take off from March to October and get a (pro) license and even run a season. When I won the SCAA (Sports Car Club of America) division championship, I was in a little Datsun 510.

"It's interesting, now, because racing is not an avocation anymore, it's a profession. I compete in about 12 to 15 races a season. It's not an awful lot, but it takes me all around the country. I can barely handle what I've got. Really, it gets very expensive. But a good professional driver does it full-time. I'm not supposed to race when I'm in a movie. The insurance companies frown on that.

"But the actor, like the driver, is held hostage by his equipment. After a while, you simply have to keep an instrument oiled. You can't just throw it in the garage and pick it up every four or five years and expect it to work. That's almost happening now.

"I mean, I used to make 2 1/2 movies a year, and now I'm grateful that I've got automobiles. Because if I didn't, I would not know what I'd do with myself. I may find a good script for me to be in now once every two years. And it's not because I'm not anxious to work. It's dry. It's dry out there. The stuff is not being written, because I think probably I get as good a crack as anyone at whatever it is that's out there.

"I enjoy racing because, well, I suppose it varies from person to person, but in my particular case, it's the only sports arena that I've entered where I've ever found any physical grace. Yeah,I never had any grace as an athlete when I was young. I did a lot of athletics--skiing, playing tennis--but I did them all very badly. I'm actually a biker. I've got a stationary bike that I work out on watching television. The more interesting the program, the easier it is to exercise. I watch something like automobile races, and I suddenly look and I've been biking 50 minutes.

"I don't know that the car's speed has much allure for me. But the accuracy of it is what I like. The idea of taking this 2,500-pound object to 175 m.p.h., and putting it within two or three inches of where you want it is a kick. It's control.

"I'm also very competitive. Acting is not designed to be competitive, whereas racing is.

"I can understand how you can be competitive about automobile racing. Because you simply have to get from one point to another, and the first one that gets there is the winner. And there's no question about it. There may be a photo finish, but even that will be determined in an accurate and visible way.

" Why are several Hollywood studios suddenly interested in making a racing movie? Well, all of the attendance figures are up for all kinds of racing--stock car, Formula One. I don't know whether that makes it more attractive to motion picture producers, but I suspect that has something to do with it.

"There's never been a great movie about racing yet. I don't suspect there ever will be, not until someone really integrates the people into the profession. Usually, it's a movie about cars with the people inserted. Or it's a movie about people with the cars inserted.

"What do I drive normally? When I'm not racing? A Nissan. But it's been unrecognizably modified. It has a lot of racing components to it. But I'm an extremely cautious and timid driver--in deference to police departments. (He laughs.) That's an announcement intended for every state patrol in the United States."

GENE HACKMAN is known as one of the hardest chargers on the celebrity racing circuit. But when it comes to driving, the 58-year-old Academy Award winner is probably best remembered for that most famous of famous car chase scenes, the one in "The French Connection" when he got behind the wheel as Popeye Doyle and dodged delivery trucks, bounced off fruit carts and sent trash cans flying. (Actually, Hackman reveals he did "only 60%" of the driving in that classic sequence but still wound up destroying two cars.)

Six years later, Hackman drove his first celebrity race at Long Beach, and it, too, was a thriller: he hit a wall during practice and destroyed a car. After attending the Bondurant school, however, Hackman proved a quick study. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he seemed unbeatable among celebrity racers, winning several races at Long Beach, Watkins Glen and Riverside.

But Hackman has been on a different kind of streak lately--winning some of Hollywood's choicest roles. As a result, he has had to choose between racing and acting.

For him, the choice is clear.

When I was very young, I thought car racing was one of the things I wanted to do. Like all kids, you have these crazy dreams. I don't think I ever really seriously considered it as a career. At the same time, I was dreaming of being an actor. Luckily, I followed that dream.

"Would I have chosen racing over acting? I've thought about it quite a bit. I have a feeling I wouldn't have stayed in racing. I don't think I have the personality to be a real racing professional.

"I think that, to be really good, you have to be extremely selfish, which is probably true in a lot of professions, including acting. So I could maybe fulfill that part of it. But I think you need a tougher personality than I have. You have to be harder than I'm capable of.

"You can learn some of the skills of racing, you can learn all the mechanical things, but there's a certain part of it that really no one can teach you--that killer instinct. You have to be very competitive. You need to have that edge about you. The good ones all have that.

"I got interested in racing in the mid-'70s when I was invited to do one of the celebrity races in Long Beach. Normally, racing is a profession with a closed-door attitude about it. When you're on the outside, it's very tough to get in. But when you're a celebrity, suddenly you're invited to be part of this inner group and it makes you feel like really something.

"Later, I went to the Bob Bondurant race-driving school in Northern California. It was different than what I had expected. You think in terms of racing that it's all daredevil and kind of harum-scarum. But it isn't at all.

"In order to be really good, you have to be absolutely the opposite. You must be extremely careful. You have to think in a very orderly fashion. What you do is you try to slow everything down instead of getting yourself all excited and expending a lot of energy. Instead, you try to slow it all down so you can go quicker. It's a very strange process.

"Then I started racing sports cars--Mazda RX7s, Toyota Celicas. They were full-out race cars, but on the outside they looked like a street version of a car. And they're rented. It sounds kind of strange to rent a race car. But the person doing it has to know who you are and they have to know that you're capable.

"At what point did I realize I was good at it? Well, I won a couple of races and I thought I could do it.

"But, then, I realized that if I wasn't really serious about it, and if I couldn't commit to 15-18 races a year, that I couldn't really compete at a professional level. At least at a decent national-class level. I never went through a period when I felt I could really do it. I suppose there was a part of me that thought I could. But the reality of it is I know I would have to give a lot more commitment than I ever did.

"I never did over six races a year.

"I've never been hurt at all. I've gotten my bell rung a couple of times, enough so where you feel groggy. But it's still a very dangerous sport.

"Do I ever feel fear? Yeah. You always get a rush--adrenaline, certainly. But the driving in 'The French Connection' was much more frightening than anything I ever did on a track.

"On normal roads, I don't drive fast anymore. I don't even drive any exotic cars anymore. Probably, it's because if you're racing, you don't need them.

"Before I started driving, I had Ferraris and Porsches and all that kind of thing. Now I have two trucks--a Toyota and a Nissan. I can't speed in those. Also, I put away a lot of the toys when I went through my divorce.

"I may go back to racing more. I think that, at the level that I do it, you can race until you're considerably older than I am now. Paul's a few years older than I am, and he's still racing.

PERRY KING isn't sure which he loves more--motorcycles or automobiles. But when it comes to racing, there's no debate: give him a sports car.

Not surprisingly for a Yale graduate, this 40-year-old TV leading man ("Riptide," "I'll Take Manhattan") is known for a driving style that focuses on the intellectual demands of the sport more than its physical challenges. King, who placed second in his first celebrity race three years ago and just kept on going, is so taken with the sport that he even writes about it. A November, 1987, article he penned for Motor Trend provided a firsthand look at the grueling 1,000-mile Toyota Olympus Rally.

A self-confessed "cautious" driver, King has managed nevertheless to establish himself as a respectable racer. This season, he joins good friend Lorenzo Lamas' new racing team.

"I started racing 20 years too late. It's like anything: the earlier you start, the better.

"What happened was the Long Beach Grand Prix Assn. and Toyota invited me three years ago to participate in a pro-celebrity race.

"It was an immediate love affair. I'd always been fascinated by racing. I love vehicles. I'm a sucker for anything on wheels. And all of a sudden there's a letter saying, 'Have you ever wondered what it's like to be Mario Andretti?'

"It's a perfect way to put it. Because I had.

"I love the technique, the control, of racing, and now I've gotten far enough into it to understand the subtleties. The longer I do it, the more I realize it's so similar to acting. Relaxation is the primary step, and the key, to good acting. It isn't everything, but if you cannot approach a performance without utter and complete relaxation, although very energized, you cannot possibly do your best work. The same is true of racing.

"The few times I've gotten into trouble on race tracks have always been because I've been too pumped, too excited, too up. The great drivers, like Jackie Stewart, talk about bringing themselves down to zero, so relaxed before a race that you could fall asleep in the car 10 minutes before the start. The same is true of acting.

"But what appeals to me most about racing and also about acting is that there's no past and no future. You're so focused, so utterly concentrated on the moment. That's always what I find so therapeutic. You come away from a race weekend drained and refreshed at the same time, as you do from a terrific performance on stage.

"I was stunned by racing speed at first. One way to describe it is, have you ever been on an icy road and you've skidded? And, as you're going around the corner, do you feel the car slide underneath you and lose traction? That's the feeling you live with on a race track the whole time. And, if you go any slower than that, you're not going at racing speeds.

"It takes a while to get used to it, but more important, it takes a while to learn the technique to be able to maintain control of it.

"But one of the main things I'd love you to know about driving race cars is that you slow down on the street. I've done this almost three years now and I drive much slower on the street. I have no tickets. The reason it's boring to go fast on the street is because it's so slow in comparison to the track. I don't care how fast you go across Mulholland. Its nothing compared to what you do on a race track.

Of course, I used to think I was fast, and I thought I was good, and I thought I knew what I was doing. All of which was very untrue: I was slow as hell, and I had no idea what I was doing. Even now, I come upon somebody on the street who thinks he's fast, who's in a fast car, and he blasts past you and it's so tempting to show him what he doesn't know. Because I've done it. You get on their rear, right behind them, and you push them into a mistake.

"I did that on a guy with a 308 Ferrari going up Coldwater once. I was in my Camaro Z28, which should not be able to keep up in turns with a 308. Well, this guy didn't know what to do, so on a turn he spun his car into the bank. Luckily, rather than the other way. I just went around him. I don't do that anymore. Because it's very wrong.

"There's also an old racing saying, 'Don't go too slow and don't go too fast. But when in doubt, hit the gas.' That's really accurate because it's the safest thing to do. Not long ago, I was with my parents, driving my father's Mercedes, and all of a sudden with no warning a road went from two lanes to one lane and the guy ahead of me braked hard, way too hard, and I did exactly what I do on a race track, which is instinctive. I floored it. Both my parents screamed, whereas I was feeling quite calm because I knew that was the right choice. The theory being that you want to get away from whatever is happening as quickly as possible.

"Lorenzo (Lamas) started when I did and he was immediately very good. But we approached it from opposite ends, and now, as time has gone by, we've gotten closer and closer to each other in terms of how we drive.

"He started with all heart, didn't drive with his head at all, and when he'd get in trouble he'd go right over the edge.

"I was all thought and no visceral heart-level capacity. I was picking it apart, piece by piece, the way I do everything, the way I do acting. I'm a New England Yankee, and that's unfortunately the worst possible genesis for an actor and for a race car driver: to be a WASP. Now I'm moving towards instant visceral feeling. And Lorenzo is moving the other way, towards becoming a thinking, intelligent driver. I think we're both getting better.

"I have enormous respect for Paul Newman and in fact predicate what I'm doing on what he's done. Most celebrities are given an opportunity to leapfrog past a lot of the normal stages, to just dive in there and grab the opportunities. But they usually get in way over their heads and then look stupid. They give the whole idea of actors driving a bad name.

"But Newman didn't. He slowly inched his way up, and that's what I'm trying to do.

"I've been racing in the Sports Car Club of America's regional championships in GT-5. It's a venue for people who work at something else but who want to race once a month on the weekend, and who want to be safe about it.

"I've had lots of offers from people who want to specifically build me a race car and go racing with me and put me on a track. That sounds glorious. But, on the other hand, it involves obligation. It involves saying, 'Yes, I will be there.' That's hard for me to do but it's also unappealing. I don't want to go racing unless I want to go racing.

"When I race, all depends on my work because I never felt I had the right to go racing while I'm working. Like recently when I had to miss an endurance race that I've won two years in a row because I was shooting a TV movie. Nobody wrote me a contract saying I couldn't. But I don't think it's right, because there's 150 people who depend on me showing up Monday.

"During 'Riptide,' though, I cheated a couple of times and raced. And towards the very end of 'I'll Take Manhattan,' I went to a driving school in Canada.

"I've fallen off race tracks a couple of times, but I've crashed only once. It was at Long Beach last year, and it wasn't my fault. But it's still my fault because, no matter what happens, it's your fault. It wasn't scary. It was annoying."

LORENZO LAMAS is serious about racing. So serious, in fact, that the 29-year-old TV sex symbol was able this season to talk the producers of "Falcon Crest" into locating several of his character's scenes at the track. Now Lamas is talking about taking a hiatus from acting altogether in order to pursue a full-time driving career.

Last November, Lamas formed his own racing team, Lamas Racing, with the backing of Florida-based Higgins Motor Sports. Along with teammate and fellow TV heartthrob Perry King, Lamas plans to race two prototype Porsches this season with an eye to getting enough track experience to eventually go big time--i.e. the Indianapolis 500. "I'm young enough to do it," Lamas says.

Like Newman, Lamas finds that his fans follow him to the track. And, like Newman, Lamas seeks refuge from them inside his "wonderfully comfortable" motor home. Since winning his division in his first race (the 1985 invitation-only Long Beach Toyota Pro-Celebrity Race where he bested Tony Danza, Mark Gastineau and King among other celebrities, Lamas has competed at least two weekends every month at tracks across the country.

"I loved it right away. I really did.

"I'd never done any auto racing before. But I'd been a sports car enthusiast. I'd always liked cars. But I really didn't have any idea how much I'd like it until I went out there in a race car, put the harness on, got my helmet and started going wheel-to-wheel with other cars. And I loved it.

"Almost immediately, I had a desire to explore my skill, to see how serious I could actually become and how good a driver I could actually be. I got my sports-racing license and I started competing in small Formula Fords. They put out 130 m.p.h., but they only weigh 800 pounds. Their power-to-weight ratio is very high.

"I learned tremendous things. I also learned to break some bad habits. For example, before I got into racing, I didn't know really what to do when I'd make a turn. I'd get my arms all crossed up. And I drove a car with my hands all over the wheel. What the racing school did for me, it taught me car control. Like the differences of how the car operates under all kinds of conditions--wet or dry gravel, what a car will do in a spin. Plain good stuff to know even if you don't climb into a race car.

"I also had to curb that natural instinct to go all out. I had a crash in 1985 right after I got into the Formula Fords. I broke my shoulders, and the newspapers got hold of it and they did a big spread on it. But I got myself taped up, and I went to work. It was important for me to do that, to show the producers that I was OK.

"I mean, in the contract I have, walking down the street to get a haircut is too risky for them. They'd like you to just stay home and wait for your work call. But I owe a lot to my producers. And they understand that this is a very important part of my life. My racing I take as seriously as my acting. Will they let me keep doing it? Knock on wood.

"But the crash was a tremendous lesson. What it did for me as a driver was to make me think. I had to decide whether or not I was going to continue this driving because if I was, and if I was going to continue doing it the way I was doing it, then I was just not going to last.

"I was going to get killed.

"So now I try not to push myself ahead of what I'm capable of doing. Because it's a very dangerous sport. I went through club racing, then regional and national and I got my pro license last year. It's fairly quick but it's not unbelievable fast. I'm driving cars now--GTPs, grand touring prototype cars--that in a straight line go upwards of 180 m.p.h..

"I formed my own racing team to get ready for the 1988 season. One of the reasons I'm driving with Perry (King) is that we have a different combination going for a driver team. Because Perry has the strategy and the tactical aspects and the technique, and I think what I offer is a 'go for it' kind of thing, although I use my head more and more and more.

"Higgins Motor Sports is assuming the costs of the cars. And, in return, I bring publicity. We have formed this team so that it's easier for us to go to different sponsors and get a sizable amount of support. Last year, I went to the races without even having a car to drive. I'd go with my representative, and the two of us would try to barter for cars. And I'd do a personal appearance for a company, or an autograph session for a car dealership.

"If I could afford to, I would give up acting. In other words, if Lamas Racing becomes a successful business and I don't really have the pressure on me to keep acting to support myself, I would very seriously consider maybe not leaving acting forever but maybe for a season or two to really establish myself in motor sports.

"It so happens that if you're a celebrity, the celebrity part of it can take precedence over the driving part. And that's what I try to avoid. But the fans make it difficult to do that. For the most part, if I'm not in my car, I hide at the track. There are responsibilities and obligations I have to fill for the sponsors, and I do that. But after I'm done, I get away from the whole scene and get my head together.

"I have never been treated badly by other drivers. It starts out as, 'OK, let's see what the kid can do.' I've always been given the benefit of the doubt until proven wrong. It does happen. When you're starting out in anything, you make mistakes. You goof.

"But there's a certain amount of margin for error that drivers give each other. That's why I like this sport so much because there is a camaraderie among the drivers. We're all out there, leaning against each other at 135 m.p.h. and there's a trust that builds. It's something I don't find in anything else I've experienced.

"Why do actors get into racing? For one thing, the business of acting is based on a lot of ifs, coulds, woulds, and maybes. Like, if I'm going up for a part, I'm going up against a dozen other guys who could do just as good a job as I can. Whereas in racing, your results are right there on the track, posted on the board for everybody to see.

"Acting and racing have similar qualities. There's a tremendous amount of concentration that you need. To do a good scene in front of a camera, you have to tune out everything--the camera operators, the lights, the people on the set--and concentrate solely on what your character is trying to portray. With racing it's similar. You're concentrating solely on working from one turn to the next turn. And you get into a rhythm, and the rhythm is very similar to the state you fall into when you're doing a really good scene and it's really working. It's almost a state of meditation.

When I'm not racing, I drive two cars--an '87 Ford Bronco, which I drive most of the time, and a 10-year-old Porsche 911 that I'm rather attached to. I've gotten my share of tickets, I've got to be honest with you.

"What's my goal? I want to compete in the Indianapolis 500. That is taking it all the way in racing. And I'm young enough to do it. And, if I give it the concentration it deserves, I think it can happen. All we're talking about here is time behind the wheel. The more time I get behind the wheel, the faster I'm going to go, the more able I'm going to be to jump to the Indy pros.

"God willing, my aspirations are to race a car for most of the year and do a motion picture or TV project for the rest of the year.

"I really admire Paul (Newman) and Gene (Hackman) and Jimmy Garner because they have opened up the door in motor sports to the rest of us."

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