DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) - Greg Newman could hardly wait for his son to get tall enough to sit behind the wheel of a go-kart and learn about competition.
The father’s dream of being a race car driver had ended early, but the birth of his son gave him another chance.
Ryan Newman did his father proud Sunday, claiming one of the greatest achievements in NASCAR with a victory in the Daytona 500. And he did it with the voice of his father, who is his spotter, in his ears through the entire race.
“I said in Victory Lane that I heard tears dropping over the radio,” Ryan Newman said this week. “He’s emotional. He’s had a couple of health issues at times and he’s put himself on the edge.
“To have him here and be part of this is a dream come true for me. It was kind of reassurance for me. He’s watched me for 26 years driving a car and he knows when I’ve got one in the bag and when I don’t, and he knows when it’s close. I could tell (from his voice) when we got into turn three (on the last lap) that it was going to be a good run, and he turned out to be right.”
These two have always been close, probably closer than many fathers and sons, thanks to their mutual obsession with racing.
“My dad built me a car when I was 9 years old, it was a quartermidget,” Greg Newman said. “We took it to a parking lot to test it. He was riding on a Nerf bar, reached in front of me to where I couldn’t see and I hit a light pole. It put him and I both in a hospital. I was unconscious for a day. My mother said the race car’s gone and that was the end.
“What started to be my racing career was over that day.”
The dream revived years later when his son was born.
“Ryan started driving at 4½,” Newman said. “He knew what he was doing to take the race car apart and put it back together at 5½. That’s pretty incredible and a lot of people may not believe it, but Ryan did do that.”
Greg Newman, who made his living as a mechanic, said he never forced his son to follow his dream.
“I tried to take it away from Ryan when he was like 6½ years old,” Greg Newman said. “I thought that being I had started him at 4, that maybe he didn’t know anything any different and maybe I should try to take it away. That just didn’t work. He’d sit there at the table and cry.
“Then, when he turned 8½ years old, we were driving him to the speedway one night and another hero of both of ours, Mel Kenyon, and some guys were there racing. I asked Ryan, `Do you think you’ll ever be as good as these guys, or you want to be like these guys?’ He said, `Yeah, dad. I’m going to do it.’ “
Greg Newman was often a tough taskmaster.
“All the things that we’ve done in the past, quartermidget racing, I remember times when he stood out on the racetrack when we were practicing and he made me drive around his foot so I’d take the ideal line,” the son said. “That was hard enough to do because where he wanted me to enter wasn’t exactly where I wanted to enter or where I thought I could enter.”
While Ryan was growing up, the two would spend their spare time together at their South Bend, Ind., home.
“I remember working out in our little garage, and him always telling me to hug the race car, give it a little kiss, before I’d go to bed at night.
“My dad and I we used to go down the basement, whenever I could get him to quit working, and we’d play with our slot cars. We had a track set up, looked like Daytona, banked in the corners and everything else. For some reason, I always ended up on the outside (lane) and he took the inside. That was his chore, just trying to knock me off.
“We always had a lot of fun and that’s just something I’ve always enjoyed,” Ryan said.
The youngster, now 30, showed plenty of racing ability early on, drawing considerable attention as he moved up through the open-wheel ranks in the Midwest.
Along the way, the Newmans met Don Miller, a friend and partner of racing entrepreneur Roger Penske, now Ryan’s boss. Miller became a close friend to Greg and a mentor to Ryan.
Miller retired as president of Penske Racing late last year and was home in North Carolina when Ryan Newman prepared to race Sunday at Daytona International Speedway. But he also had a role in the big day.
“I had Don start Ryan. When they fired the engines, I got Don on the telephone and hit the buttons for (Ryan’s) radio,” Greg Newman said, his voice cracking and tears welling in his eyes. “Don’s favorite saying is `Drive it like you stole it, Rainman.’ That’s what he said to Ryan. ... Without Don, we wouldn’t be here.”
It was Miller who suggested Greg Newman become his son’s spotter. That was fine until the budding NASCAR star, with 12 wins in his first four full seasons in what is now called Sprint Cup, fell onto hard times.
Things have been a struggle for the Newmans and the Penske team since late in the 2005 season and Sunday’s victory broke a personal 81-race drought for the young driver.
“I spotted for him a little in the Busch Series, which was just my incoming to spotting, and we won a bunch of races right off the get-go,” the elder Newman said. “He had me come on two years ago to do the Cup stuff and this is the first (Cup) win I’ve had with him, being the spotter. It was very frustrating the last two years.
“I mean, my voice would go to pot. He would yell at me during the race. Don Miller would even talk to me after the race: `You can’t be depressed like that when you’re going backwards because it just reverberates through the whole team.’ So it was kind of tough.
“We’re used to winning,” Greg Newman added. “We’ve never gone through a year without winning. We very seldom went through a month without winning until we got to stock cars. Then we realized how hard it is to win.”
The younger Newman said, minutes after he took the checkered flag Sunday night for the biggest win of his life, his father reminded him on the radio of the days when the two of them would drive straight through from Indiana to Florida to attend the Daytona 500.
“He asked me if I remembered when we’d drive down here at night and pull into the Cracker Barrel parking lot and sleep in the car?” Ryan said. “It doesn’t seem that long ago.”
As for Greg Newman, being part of his son’s Daytona victory is the culmination of a lot of hard work and dreams.
“It brings my racing deal full circle,” Greg Newman said. “I’ve been living a dream since Ryan was four years.”
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