2002 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year Ryan Newman goes fishing
By Jennifer Stevenson
Home: Sherrills Ford, N.C.
Years fishing: "Every bit of 20 years or more. I've got pictures of me holding up a little stringer at my grandparents' cottage with five or six fish on it."
Favorite lure: "A purple worm with a white stripe on it."
Favorite fishing hole: Dewey Lake
Fishing buddies: Friends James and Joseph Nunn; girlfriend Krissie Boyle; father Greg.
As NASCAR Winston Cup rookie and race leader Ryan Newman sat out the rain delay during the 2002 fall race at the New Hampshire International Speedway, he undoubtedly worried about his fellow competitor Johnny Benson, who'd start from the second spot when the rain stopped. When the race restarted - if it restarted - would he be able to fight off a Benson surge? Which driver was hungrier - Newman, who had posted one Winston Cup win, albeit a non-points event, or Benson, who'd never experienced victory after six and half seasons on the tour?
He needn't have worried about Benson. His hapless opponent did pass him but later tangled with Newman's teammate Rusty Wallace on lap 141. Fifty-eight laps and one Kurt Busch later, it was Newman's time to shine as rain ended the race 101 laps too soon with Newman in the lead and Busch on his bumper.
Several hours before Newman took the checkered flag in his first NASCAR Winston Cup points victory, a segment aired in the pre-race show featuring Newman working on his other passion, one decidedly less nerve-racking. Newman wanted to talk about how he relaxed off the racetrack. Newman wanted to talk fishing. NASCAR fans were treated to a glimpse of one of racing's most promising lead-footers kicking back on a boat with a rod and reel in hand.
A fishy legacy
Newman's grandfather introduced him to fishing when he was just a child. They'd spend hours on Michigan's Dewey Lake, hoping to land a big one.
"My grandfather was always an avid fisherman," Newman said. "We used to go out and go fishing together, and it was kind of special, because first of all it was my grandfather and me, and it was also something we both enjoyed doing. He got me involved in it."
Newman not only gleaned fishing know-how from his grandfather but also picked up the deeper meaning of a relaxing day on the lake.
"One of the best things he taught me about fishing was that it's not just going out and catching fish, it's going out and enjoying nature, enjoying the whole atmosphere itself," Newman said. "It's kind of progressed for me since then. He's no longer here, but I still enjoy it. It's kind of peaceful for me."
A racing pedigree
The better part of Newman's formative years were spent behind the wheel of a racecar. He grew up in South Bend, Ind., beneath the aura of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a Mecca of sorts for racecar drivers of any stripe.
Much like his fellow Hoosier Tony Stewart, Newman's personal evolution of speed began at age 4 with quarter midgets, from which he progressed to midgets, sprint cars and then the United States Auto Club circuit. From there, he hooked up with Penske Racing, his current NASCAR Winston Cup team, and the rest is history.
Racing underneath the Penske umbrella in 2001, Newman embarked on a 24-race schedule, known as an "ABC schedule," that involved competing in ARCA, Busch and NASCAR Winston Cup events to prepare him for his rookie season in 2002. The preparation paid off.
He blazed his way into the pole position a league-leading six times, finished in the second spot five times and in the top five 14 times in 2002, including his win at NHIS. His stunning victory at the Winston all-star event in May left little doubt the future of NASCAR rested in Newman's capable hands. He and fellow rookie Jimmie Johnson were engaged in a tight rookie battle all season, with Newman ultimately earning the Raybestos Rookie of the Year title despite finishing seven points behind Johnson in the final points standings.
He enhanced his racing prowess with a degree in vehicle structure engineering from the esteemed Purdue University. According to Newman, the education was meant to improve his racing as well as provide a backup plan if in fact his racing career didn't pan out.
"(The education) was there to help me for the future, whether that's as a driver, helping me to communicate, or just to be a better person," he said. "Education's pretty good at that. At the same time, I had a piece of paper that I could fall back on if I was ever injured or if driving didn't work out for me. The bottom line is it's easier to hire someone that's got a degree."
An escape route
Luckily for Newman, the Winston Cup schedule includes stops in some places that not only include infield ponds but are often located close to notable fishing holes. After the 2001 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Newman and some of his road crew explored the Gulf of Mexico on a deep-sea fishing quest. Newman snagged a couple of yellowfin tuna and a red snapper or two. "Nothing huge," he said.
Most of the time, though, Newman's fishing exploits are less exotic and more relaxing. In fact, he seemed more excited talking about the peacock bass he caught in the Homestead infield than he did about his exploits in the Gulf.
Newman took advantage of several local fisheries during the 2002 Winston Cup season, taking in the action around Watkins Glen, Michigan and Pocono, among others. During the race at Watkins Glen, Newman and company went to dinner at a restaurant overlooking Seneca Lake, and Newman found the enticing waters irresistible.
"We went to eat dinner, and I took my fishing poles with me because I knew we were going to have to wait for our table," Newman said. "I went out and caught two smallmouths before we even ate dinner."
These days, Newman's primary fishery is North Carolina's Lake Norman. He bought a home on its shores and scours it for bass and crappie whenever he gets the chance. No matter how good the fishing is on Lake Norman, though, a part of him still longs for the good old days spent with his grandfather on Dewey Lake.
"My grandfather and I used to always go trolling," Newman said. "That's how we went fishing. We'd get up in the morning, and in the afternoon, when supposedly the bite is better, we'd just go trolling. The lake was perfect; it took about an hour and a half to troll around it in a little fishing boat that he had. I still have that fishing boat."
Besides the sentimental value, Newman also finds the fishing on Dewey Lake far superior to Lake Norman. "(Dewey Lake) is a natural lake," he said. "They raise and lower (the water) here on Norman, and right now it's at least 6 feet down, which obviously changes everything as far as fishing tactics and strategies and what the fish are doing. It makes it really complex when it comes to catching fish, on top of the fact that it didn't rain for forever this summer. I think it made the fish pretty inactive because I don't think there was much oxygen in the water."
Like any good angler, Newman can spin a yarn or two about the big one he caught or the big one that got away. Many a fisherman has stretched the truth when fishing stories are retold, but with Newman, the proof is in his freezer.
He and a friend from the race team, James Nunn, took off from Newman's Lake Norman abode, trolling around and casting toward the shore. Nunn, a mechanic with Newman's behind-the-wall pit crew, competes in Monday night tournaments on Lake Norman and knows all the hot spots. At the end of the day, however, Nunn had none, but Newman had his first Lake Norman largemouth - a 6 1/4-pounder - plus a 12-inch crappie.
"A 6.25-pounder is pretty huge for this lake," Newman said. "Those were the only two fish we caught that day, and I caught them off the same lure (a No. 5 Shad Rap). He didn't catch anything. The funny part of it is we got in an argument afterward because I wanted to keep the fish, and he wanted me to throw it back because he's a sport fisherman. I said, 'The way I grew up, every fish we caught we cleaned and we ate. It didn't go to waste.' We got into a pretty good argument over it, but I won because I caught the fish!"
Hitting the tournament trail
When fishing at the racetrack, Newman said there are often six to 10 people heading out in several boats. He prefers the company. What he'd like better, though, is the company of bass pros at a tournament, a feat he's never tried.
"There's usually never time," he said. "I might do it a few times next year with my deal with Ranger Boats. I look forward to doing that next year, time providing."
Newman joins 2002 Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton and 2000 Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte as spokesmen for the new Ranger/NASCAR bass boat packages. The affiliation could possibly afford him a co-angler slot in an FLW Outdoors tournament in 2003 if his schedule allows.
He's also "very excited" about the new Ranger boat he will soon have. The brother of his favorite fishing buddy Nunn has a Ranger 520 that caught Newman's eye.
"I got to go fishing on that quite a few times, and we've had a lot of fun," he said.
Life in the fast lane
Despite Newman's desire to dabble in competitive fishing, his focus is totally on his racing career. Newman came out of the gate with expectations riding high on all sides, and by anyone's measure his rookie season was a resounding success. Newman, however, expressed concern over his failure to finish five races in 2002.
"We've accomplished some of the goals and missed on others, especially when it comes to the DNFs," he said. "I don't want to look at it from a negative point of view, but those are the things that really knock us back when it comes to points.
"Other than that, we've had great performances at pretty much every track we've gone to, and that's pretty special for me, from a rookie standpoint, to be able to go to some of these tracks and compete with these guys who have done it for 20 years and be as successful as we have been."
The Winston Cup roster is littered with competent drivers who, despite undeniable racing talent, have consistently been denied that elusive first win. The fact that Newman's initial victory came in his rookie season is a triumph not lost on the young driver. With remarkable humility, Newman credits the people behind him, not just himself, for his accomplishments.
"For me it was a great feat for the team; it wasn't necessarily for me as a driver," he said. "I've competed a long time hoping to get to that point, but at the same time, there are 250 people that are behind me, whether it's building the race cars or marketing or the sponsors. I felt (good about) winning it for the team and having those people there to celebrate with me.
"It's kind of like when someone throws you a surprise party. You're not happy because it's a surprise; you're happy because of the people that care about you and support you."
Because of the nature of the sport, NASCAR has not historically been kind to rookies until recently. Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and now Newman and Jimmie Johnson lead a parade of first-timers who not only cracked the top 10 in points but consistently outran their competitors, former Winston Cup champions and all.
In 2001, Harvick took over the car of the late Dale Earnhardt following his tragic death at the season-opening Daytona 500. A mere three weeks later, Harvick beat Jeff Gordon by a foot at Atlanta Motor Speedway in a dramatic victory fit for the history books. Harvick went on to win again at Chicago that season and took the stage in New York that December at the Winston Cup awards banquet not only to accept his well-earned Rookie of the Year trophy but also a check for finishing in the top 10 in final points standings.
His second season was a comparable disaster. Grounded for a week by NASCAR for fighting with competitors on and off the track, Harvick was forced to sit out the spring race in Martinsville, and his on-track performance the rest of the season left little to talk about. Harvick finished the season deep in the points standings, surprising the legions of fans he picked up after his incredible rookie run.
Newman hopes to avoid a similar sophomore slump. "The DNF thing was big this year," he said. "It hurt us in the points. If we can eliminate the DNFs, then that would be awesome. If you can get one leg up or better in one area like that - that's so important." In competitive fishing, much like racing, a competitor's standing in the points race matters most. Improving a performance at one lake can make the difference between a top-10 berth and an Angler-of-the-Year title.
This concept is not lost on Newman, who will enter the 2003 Winston Cup season in defense of his stellar rookie run. Chances are, Newman will keep his car in the running in 2003 and who knows - maybe next year, the head table at the awards banquet might be Newman's own.
Content provided by Bass Fishing Magazine, the official publication of FLW Outdoors