February 21, 1977 12:00 PM

The helmet said P.L.N. The program was more elaborate, but a trifle cute: P. L. Newman. But no one among the nearly 50,000 fans who turned out for the 24-hour endurance race at Daytona, Fla. was fooled. The man behind the initials and the wheel of the wailing Ferrari was actor Paul Newman, gray of hair, blue of eye and maybe a bit long in the tooth (52 years) to be making his professional driving debut.

He did surprisingly well. In collaboration with veteran drivers Milt Minter and Elliott Forbes-Robinson, Newman raced around the 3.84-mile track at speeds as high as 180 mph to finish fifth, a mere 50 laps behind the winner. Newman’s car, owned by Clint Eastwood, was one of 24 survivors among the 57 starters. Newman drove a total of about six and a half hours, nearly half of it at night.

“I’d never driven at night before,” said Newman after the race. “I’d never driven a car with this much horsepower and I’d never been involved in a race more than three or four hours long. Would I like to do it again? You bet your life.” Newman said he might enter the 12-hour endurance race coming up at nearby Sebring next month.

Newman spent five years on the amateur driving circuit. Last fall in Georgia he was awarded the President’s Cup, the highest amateur trophy of the Sports Car Club of America.

“He’s very dedicated,” observes Forbes-Robinson. “I don’t think there are many people who could start driving competitively at the age Paul did and be doing anywhere near as well.”

At Daytona Newman kept a shield of security men and police between himself and adoring fans. “I forgot he’s a star,” recalls Forbes-Robinson. “I’d say let’s go to this place, and he’d answer, ‘Man, I can’t—too many people.’ ” Before the race the actor tried to visualize every bump on the track while listening to tapes of Bach and Beethoven in his trailer. “There’s just no Hollywood air about him,” says Minter. “And he’s smart. You tell him about a driving mistake and it’s the last time he’ll make it.”

After the race Newman jubilantly guzzled beer—his usual, Coors, plus Busch Bavarian—and made plans to join his wife, Joanne Woodward, in London. She was shooting a film for British TV. There are reports Newman may do a racing film or perhaps devote most of 1977 to the track. Whatever his choice, he has impressed his colleagues. “He came here concerned about doing well and not letting us down,” says Forbes-Robinson. “He was determined to do it right, and he did.”

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