Paul Newman and Tom Cruise Spend a So-So Day at the Races, but Fans Lap It Up Anyway

updated 07/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Dozens of hyper-tuned sports cars had converged for the weekend festivities at Braselton, Ga.'s Road Atlanta raceway, but the real competition, it sometimes seemed, wasn't on the track. In a field near the course fans and press packed six deep around a couple of motor homes cordoned off by a chain. Cameras clicked. Microphone booms probed. The quarry: a couple of celebrity throttle jockeys, Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. The good-natured rubbernecking got so silly that one driver posted a sign that read, "See Tom Cruise: 50 cents. Paul Newman: $1. Tammy Faye Bakker: $4.5 million. Tax deductible."

Truth be told, even fans willing to part with a buck fifty would have had a hard time spotting the pair. Both spent much of their time out of sight with their crews and cars. Cruise, 25, who vowed a year ago that he "wouldn't spend my life hiding from paparazzi," seemed particularly photosensitive. Perhaps it was nerves. Newman, 62, a veteran racer and Cruise's co-star in The Color of Money, introduced the young actor to his favorite sport last year. Cruise had taken racing lessons and practiced with car clubs since then, but the Road Atlanta series marked his debut as a professional driver.

Piloting a red, white and blue Nissan 300ZX turbo, Newman finished seventh of 44 entries in the feature event, the 300 kilometer Road Atlanta Kuppen-heimer Camel GT Challenge. He took home $4000 and the satisfaction of watching his protégé make a gallant first effort at becoming a top gun in a risky business. While practicing, Cruise bounced his car off a railing, forcing him to borrow another Nissan 300ZX from a driving school to compete in his event, a three-hour endurance race that also drew 44 competitors. The neophyte Andretti fishtailed twice—once forcing another car off the track—and spun out completely on one turn. Yet he managed, with teammate Rick Hendrick, who drove half the race, to place 14th. "Smooth as silk," he announced after his maiden effort. "I drive faster going to work," kidded a fellow racer. "But he's just a baby driver. He'll get better."

No doubt. Just as soon as he develops a little more Cruise control.

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