With a deep love for both Paul Newman and Datsun automobiles, Adam Carolla merged his dual passions by collecting and restoring many of the late actor’s race cars. Unable to let such unique, beautiful pieces of racing history idly collect dust in a garage, Carolla began racing the cars himself. Taking his hobby full circle, his determination to share Newman’s unlikely story pays off with Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman. A documentary that (like its name suggests) focuses solely on the actor’s career behind the wheel, Winning uses archival footage and heartfelt interviews to paint a picture of a man captivated by speed.
An interview with Paul’s brother, Arthur, sets up an all-American upbringing that leads into a life of stardom and international acclaim. Robert Wagner shifts the focus to racing via his memories of training with Paul for their roles in Winning, a 1969 film about two Indy car racers vying for glory. Prepping for their parts by enrolling in the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, Wagner fondly recalls Newman’s excitement for the sport. Evolving into a lifelong obsession (begun at age 45), it was racing — not acting — that defined the latter half of Paul Newman’s life.
The use of racing and Hollywood interviews by Carolla and co-director/writer Nate Adams make it all but impossible not to fall in love with the hyper-charismatic Newman. Mostly fluff, these interviews provide little more than anecdotes in praise of Newman’s unrivaled kindness and informality. When taken as a whole, however, these devotionals coalesce into something larger than the individual parts. Initially discounted as the sweeping accolades of a deceased movie star, each memory evokes the same deep affection as the last. With celebrities and drivers alike regarding Newman with the same fondness, the directors effectively force the audience to view him with the same reverence.
Sentiment aside, Carolla and Adams make a concerted effort to detail as much of Newman’s racing career as possible. Talking to racing greats like Mario Andretti, Willy T. Ribbs, and Lyn St. James, the documentarians profile the relatively untold story behind this particular time in the actor’s life. We get the story of a man tired of the attention that accompanies fame and whose singular aim was to become “just” another driver. A consummate friend, Paul’s camaraderie in the pits was matched only by his tenacity on the track. Never a showman, he preferred humility to recognition and was always eager to learn. Skimping on some of the actor’s career as a co-owner of Newman-Haas Racing, as well as glazing over his “Newman’s Own” salad dressing company, the film is far more concerned with building the picture of a great man than it is with exploring the direct outcomes of his entrepreneurial ventures. Carolla’s inexperience behind the camera does show, and while we get a pretty comprehensive version of Newman’s racing career, some of the audible questions from behind the camera are ham-handed pleas for empathy (“What do you miss about Paul Newman” is little more than “I dare you not to cry”).
A plethora of heart-pounding footage (race and off-track) is at the heart and soul of Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman. Although modern retellings of stories have stood the test of time, it is Newman himself that does the captivating. A unique and hypnotizing figure, ex-driver Willy T. Ribbs perhaps best sums up Newman the driver: “Newman was on Viagra before they made Viagra, he was a hard dick brother.”
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of sunny San Diego, California. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.