There was a 1977 Datsun 200SX race car parked on Hollywood Boulevard last night. Sitting in front of the landmark El Capitan Theater, it looked like either the setup for history’s most epic hooning video or a scene out of Boogie Nights. Actually, it was the premiere of a far better movie, Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman.
Adam Carolla is a well known car guy, and not one of those annoying celebs who claims to like cars because he owns a subwoofered Hummer H2 or a Bentley with 25-inch color-coordinated rims. His enthusiasm for the Nissan/Datsun brand is real, and has led him to collect, restore and race a number of the marque’s historic cars ranging from the obvious (510, Z) to the obscure (610, 200SX).
We were graciously invited to the premiere of Winning by producer and co-director Nate Adams. Along with auto industry friends and readers who used the coupon code Nate provided, attendees included the strange intersection of race car drivers (Michael Andretti, Tommy Kendall) and entertainers (Jimmy Kimmel, The Bachelor bachelor), and those who, like Paul Newman, were both (Patrick Dempsey).
However, the biggest draw (to us, anyway) were the ex-Newman cars Carolla brought out from his own collection. Those included a trio of Nissan 300ZXes, including the two that Newman drove to SCCA GT-1 championships in 1985 and 1986. The 1985 car (left) was undergoing restoration and displayed sans engine or transmission, just a utilitarian tube frame chassis on which a Z31-esque fiberglass nose could be draped.
Last night was also the first public appearance of Carolla’s 1984 Z31. The restoration was completed by Hotchkis with a turbo V6 built by Ed Pink Racing Motors. Please forgive the poor photo quality. It was almost impossible to get a clean shot without obfuscation by a popped collar carrying a champagne flute.
Our favorite was Newman’s 1979 Datsun 280ZX, with 900hp courtesy of a twin-turbo V8 and enough bodywork to make a zokusha driver weep with joy. Nissan North America was the presenting sponsor for the evening, so a GT3-spec R35 was on display facing off against the be-winged Z, and a just-unveiled 2016 Maxima was parked behind the 200SX while brand new Muranos served as courtesy shuttles.
Of course, Carolla’s passion for Nissans is what led him to Paul Newman and the film we were there to watch. Even the most ardent fans of the Oscar winner typically don’t realize that Newman was as much a racer as he was a leading man perhaps even more so, winning four SCCA Trans-Am championships and finishing second overall at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Carolla sought to change that with his portrayal of Newman in Winning, the story of a hugely talented race car driver that just happened to be a hugely talented movie star on the side.
Newman was already one of the biggest stars in the world when he began his professional racing career at 48. His fame didn’t spare him any hardships, though. Many pro drivers initially had Newman in their sights, miffed at how Butch Cassidy dared set tire to tarmac. At Le Mans, paparazzi swarmed the pits, stealing his concentration and valuable seconds getting back on the track. Above all, the movie studios thought he was risking a multi-million dollar asset — himself — by racing and wanted him to stop.
But through it all Newman took his licks, risking his acting career by doing what he loved, and slowly earned the respect of lifelong racers. You don’t have to take our word for it; testimonies from the likes of Jay Leno, John Morton, Bob Sharp, Mario Andretti, Sam Posey and Robert Redford all attest to the fact. Or, simply go see the film about the man for yourself. It opens in select theaters and on demand May 22. There is no shortage of incredible vintage racing footage of Datsun Zs, 510s and Porsche 935s whipping around apexes either.