Paul Newman and Jim Fitzgerald were the aging Butch and Sundance of the Trans Am racing circuit—two good buddies toughing it out together against competition that was decades younger and reveling in each other’s company away from the track. But in real life, just as in the movies, good times can end in disaster. Fitzgerald’s came as he entered the first turn on the third lap at the GTE St. Petersburg Grand Prix on Nov. 8. Newman, 62, his racing partner of four years, watched from his own car as Fitzgerald’s Nissan 300ZX Turbo crashed broadside into a concrete wall. The impact killed him.
A preliminary autopsy disclosed that Fitzgerald, 65, who lived in Commons, N.C., and was a much-loved fixture on the Trans Am circuit, had died of a broken neck. “He made one hell of a start; in the first lap he came flying by me like I was nailed down,” says racer Deborah Gregg, who was two cars behind Fitzgerald at the time. Officials are still investigating the cause of the crash.
The Newman-Fitzgerald friendship began at Road Atlanta, a major racing and teaching complex, 15 years ago. Fitzgerald once recalled, “I had the beer cooler, he had the beer.” The duo was playfully dubbed the Geritol Gang by younger drivers. “They were a perfect match,” says Gregg. “They shared the same sense of humor. They’d have dinner together. Jim would help with Paul’s driving, and Paul would help Jim.” Former racer Hugh McDonough, Fitzgerald’s cousin, adds simply, “They had a lot of respect for each other’s talents.” And Gregg’s partner, Bob Snodgrass, says, “Newman’s enjoyment of racing was probably in large part due to Fitzgerald.”
After the crash, officials halted the 100-mile race as emergency personnel removed Fitzgerald’s body from his car. For 49 minutes drivers waited for the race to resume. During that agonizing time, Newman sat in his Nissan 300ZX 2+2 Turbo tightly gripping the steering wheel, both eyes closed. When the race resumed he was unable to start his engine again and withdrew. Stunned by the death of his friend, he abruptly left the scene and flew home the next morning.
Just prior to his last competition, Fitzgerald, ranked 13th in this season’s Trans Am point championship, told the Tampa Tribune: “Me racing, that should be a step forward for guys my age. You’d think people my age would get excited about it, but they don’t; they tell me I’m crazy.” Everybody, that is, except Newman, his partner in age, in laughter, in courage.