I checked in at the front desk, took a seat in one of the lobby’s black leather chairs and waited.
The lobby was much like any other company’s lobby, except for the checker-pattern tile floor and blown-up photographs of Newman and teammate Rusty Wallace.
A young, 20-something racer passed by with a pair of shocks in hand. I learned from his brief conversation with the receptionist that he would race in Chicago, Illinois, the next weekend.
After 20 minutes of anticipation, Newman appeared in the waiting area and greeted me. He held out his hand with a smile on his face. Modestly dressed in a pair of jeans and a black House of Blues T-shirt, Newman apologized for the delay and said he had been in a meeting to talk about the previous weekend’s Nextel Cup race in Fontana, California.
The meeting didn’t go real well, he said. “You know how we finished.”
As the driver of the No. 12 Alltel Dodge, Newman finished 18th two days prior at California Speedway, which dropped him to 11th in points. He needed to be in the top 10 to be eligible for the chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup championship.
The 27-year-old was faced with one chance to get back in the top 10 and the chase for the Cup. Despite that stress, the self-described country boy was in good spirits to talk about racing, fishing and most importantly, snowmobiles.
Though Newman spends most of his weekends behind the wheel of an 800 hp stock car, he grew up a snowmobiler and now wishes he had more time to ride on the trails and in the mountains.
“It’s something I want to do every year,” he said. “But it usually ends up working out [that I can’t], because of where we’re located and what we do for a living.”
Newman grew up in South Bend, Indiana, where, between racing and wrenching on midget and sprint cars, he also rode and tinkered with snowmobiles. “Workin’ on my own sled, keeping it running. Those are great memories,” he said.
Newman and his dad, Greg, worked on racecars until the evening. Then, they’d head home and strap on their snowmobile helmets.
“We’d ride the trail up to a little tavern in Galien [Michigan]. We’d get dinner and ride back home,” Newman said.
His family had three sleds. A 1976 Skiroule 440 had the meanest engine but it was the heaviest, Newman said. The family’s fastest machine was a 1981 Arctic Cat Jag 440. The racer’s sled was a 1979 Moto-Ski.
“That Moto-Ski had to be the most reliable snowmobile that was ever built. That thing would always start. It would always run,” Newman said.
Newman, whose favorite TV show is “Dukes of Hazzard,” got into sleds when he was 6 years old. “I’ve always liked anything with horsepower and a steering wheel,” he said. Even though he’s mastered stock cars, he wasn’t always as sharp behind the handlebars of a snowmobile.
His first time at the controls of the family’s Arctic Cat was supposed to be a ride with his dad on back, but it didn’t happen as planned. “I gassed it and took off. I came around the house and there he was; sittin’ in the yard. I never knew he fell off,” Newman said.
From the mid ’80s until he moved to North Carolina in 2000, Newman and his younger sister, Jamie, pounded the trails near their house.
Jamie rode the more powerful Skiroule, but probably had no idea she’d influence her big brother’s circle-track future. “We had a little racetrack out back — a little oval — and I’d get pretty good curves built up [chasing her],” Newman said. “It was just about going out and having fun snowmobiling.”
Newman holds a mechanical engineering degree, which helped him land a gig last year with Polaris to help launch its 900 Fusion and 900 RMK snowmobiles.
In exchange for a trip to the Rocky Mountains, he recorded an online segment for the company’s Web site where he explained the features and benefits of the new IQ chassis and 900 Liberty engine. Compensation for his work turned out to be a remarkable experience.
Polaris sent Newman and his wife, Krissie, along with his crew and their wives to Daniels Summit, Utah, in December 2004 to ride in the early-season snow. Some of the guys on the team hadn’t seen snow before, let alone feet of it in the mountains, Newman said.
The group was 42 people strong, he said, and it was a way to thank the guys for their support all season. “That was the most fun I could have. To go out with them and enjoy it…those guys appreciated it so much,” he said.
That trip was great, but to be politically correct, he said, his best snowmobile experience was his honeymoon near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in January, 2004. The newlyweds rode “top-of-the-line” rental sleds with a few folks who knew their way around the area. “We got stuck plenty of times,” Newman said.
Newman received his degree from Purdue University where he studied a self-designed curriculum called Vehicle Structure Engineering.
He thinks comfort is an important part of designing a snowmobile and Polaris’ adjustable steering system is a big step toward making sleds better suited to individual riders. A sled’s speed and handling characteristics are equally important, he said.
“Without speed, the handling doesn’t make any difference. And without handling, you can’t go fast.” And how does a snowmobile compare to a 3,400-pound stock car?
Each driver has a big influence on the vehicle, he said, but their effects are drastically different due to weight and the environments in which they’re driven.
“When you’re riding a snowmobile, you’re 25 percent of the entire package, as far as weight goes. So you have a lot of control over your vehicle,” he said. “In a stock car, you’re a lot less percentage.” The conditions play a big role, too, he said.
“[In a stock car] you’re more of a direct connect with your surroundings. As far as snowmobiles, you’re at the mercy of the snow. On pavement, it’s more of a one-to-one contact relationship,” he said.
Snowmobilers often buy a sled based on what type of rider they are. But Newman doesn’t label himself as a trail rider, a powder hound or a touring guy. “I like a little bit of everything,” he said. The 2002 NASCAR Rookie of the Year said he likes the outdoors and enjoys being in the winter environment.
“The older I get, the more I appreciate that part of snowmobile riding versus, you know, seeing who can jump the farthest or miss the tree by the closest amount,” he said.
Newman’s ideal trip would be somewhere in the west with a log cabin, great trails, powdered fields and hills to climb. “The Rockies are awesome, especially in the winter,” Newman said.
There’d be five people at the most, he said, one of whom would be fellow Nextel Cup driver Matt Kenseth. “[He] and I are pretty good friends and he’s from Wisconsin,” Newman said. “I know he’s got snowmobiles.”
Newman drives racecars that are specially built for different types of tracks. A racecar that’s built for Daytona International Speedway won’t perform well anywhere but on the high banks and long stretches of a super speedway, but Newman wants a snowmobile that works well everywhere.
“[Whether] you wanted to haul ass across a lake to go visit your buddy at a cottage, if you wanted to trail ride or you wanted to climb a mountain…one that would work in all those conditions is a good snowmobile,” he said.
Rather than show up at a 9-to-5 job Monday through Friday, he unwinds during the week by fishing, playing with his four dogs and enjoying Mother Nature. He also tends to his fan mail.
Newman’s paycheck is earned on weekends, but he doesn’t see it as work. “Obviously, it’s a way of making a living, but it’s what I enjoy doing. So, I don’t see it as a job,” the right-hander said as he scrawled his name across a fan’s piece of memorabilia.
If he didn’t earn a living by turning left, Newman would be a professional fisherman, he said. The outdoorsman makes time to fish while traveling on the Nextel Cup circuit.
“We carry 12 fishing rods and eight tackle boxes on our coach. Pretty much every track we go to, we’ve got at least one fishing hole we can go to,” Newman said. In his opinion, bass fishing at home in North Carolina is the best.
Though Newman has a new Ram 1500 pickup as part of his sponsorship deal with Dodge, he’d rather roll around in a car that’s older than he is than steer a fresh set of wheels.
“To me, driving an old car is better than driving a new car,” Newman said. He still owns his first automobile — a 1974 Triumph TR6.
Newman knocked off most of his fan mail during my 60-minute interview. He planned to wet a line that afternoon.
Whether it was due to the post-race meeting or time spent on the water that day, something clicked. He took 12th place a few days later at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Virginia.
His finish was enough to get into the top 10 and battle for the points championship. Imagine what he could accomplish if he could squeeze in some time between races aboard a snowmobile.