ICS: Paul Newman’s Influence Makes Rahal His Own Man

The presence of Paul Newman can still be felt around motor racing, particularly Indy cars. Newman, an actor by trade but a racer at heart, co-owned a team that won 107 races and eight championships. It employed champion drivers Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Michael Andretti, Christiano da Matta and Sebastien Bourdais, who won four titles.

Newman/Haas Racing is no longer in the series. Newman died in 2008 at age 83, but it was not before he saw Graham Rahal win the second race of the unified IndyCar Series earlier that year. In his first start and driving a car carrying the livery of Newman’s Hole In the Wall Camp charity, Rahal became the youngest winner in the history of major open wheel racing at 19.

Today in the Verizon IndyCar Series, Rahal still carries the message of Paul Newman, a man whose Newman’s Own brand of salad dressings and other foods has given more than $430 million to charities around the world.

The Hole in the Wall charity, known as the SeriousFun Children’s Network in 2012, provides residential camps for seriously ill children, 13,000 annually. In 2008, Newman was named Most Generous Celebrity by givingback.org, having given away nearly $21 million in his final year.

Back then, Rahal was just a kid, the teenaged son of former champion Bobby Rahal. Now, he’s on the precipice of marriage to Courtney Force, the daughter of drag racing legend John Force. Rahal has seven full seasons in his rear-view mirror. He’s still looking for that second victory. He’s a man now entering his prime of  life.

Newman won four national titles as a driver coming up through the ranks in the Sports Car Club of America. His love of the game is clear in the recently released documentary produced by Adam Carolla, Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman. He even won a race in a Corvette at age 82, the number on the side of the car.

There is no one in the IndyCar paddock who embodies the spirit of Newman more than Rahal, who’s having a breakout season and stands fifth in the points. Newman fell in love with racing while making the 1969 film Winning, then devoted the rest of his life to the sport and worked movie-making around his schedule.

“Frankly, he was a big reason Newman/Haas hired me, he pushed very hard,” Rahal said of the team co-owned by Newman and Carl Haas. “Up and coming, Paul was very proud. Any time I had won a race, the very first person in Victory Lane was Paul. We always had a very close relationship.”

But the philanthropy is where Rahal and Newman really come together. Rahal found out about it at Sebring during testing, when Newman flew down from his home in Connecticut. Sitting around a table, the aging actor told the young racer the story of Newman’s Own, a food company he co-founded that donates all after-tax profits and royalties to charity.

“I realized how much there is in life and the value of life and how much I could potentially do to help others as well—never to his level, but every little bit helps,” Rahal said. “He was the guy who shaped my life. My dad and mom donated to a lot of children’s charities when I was a kid, too, but Paul did it to a different level, and Paul did it to a much more effective level than even a Bill Gates. People say, ‘How’s that, Bill Gates gives a lot of money.’ Well, Bill Gates is a lot wealthier than Paul Newman was. Yet through Newman’s Own, year-in and year-out it provides kids happiness and a way to be free and have fun and cure childhood illnesses. That’s pretty powerful stuff.

“Paul was a guy who achieved so much but was so incredibly down to earth and modest, and that’s what was really cool about him. Truly, there’s not many days that go by in my life where I don’t think about him at some point in the day.”

Newman was a role model to the impressionable Rahal and provided a blueprint for handling celebrity.

“Not that I view myself as a celebrity but how you control the way you are perceived and how you always try to be friendly and be very open and very accessible to the fans here,” Rahal said. “That was always very important to me. I never heard a bad thing about Paul Newman. … He lived life to the fullest but helped others in life do the same, even when they faced the darkest challenges you could have.”

Rahal, given a status in society that affords him some notoriety, wants to use it for the greater good. He has formed the Graham Rahal Foundation to support Alex’s Lemonade Stand for Childhood Cancer and Hole in the Wall Camps.

“We try to give back as much as we can,” Rahal said. “It’s a difficult thing because I don’t have the financial backing myself to be able to hire somebody or two or three people to go and run it, which is what major charities have. So it’s hard for me to go out and raise a ton of money because I don’t have the capability to pay people like that.”

Yet over the last four or five years, Rahal has raised over a million dollars for charity.

“It’s pretty good, but ultimately, we want to do more,” he said. “I don’t believe in doing anything in life unless you do it to the max, to the best of your ability, and where the foundation is concerned, I want to make sure we give back as much as possible.

“It’s valuable to me to help as much as I can.”

In that respect, he’s one of Newman’s own.

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