The first time Sebastien Bourdais met Paul Newman, they had dinner at a restaurant a short walk from the street circuit in St. Petersburg, Fla.
It was the spring of 2003, Bourdais had just joined Newman/Haas Racing and was preparing for the Champ Car World Series season opener. As dinners with Paul Newman go, it was quiet. Uneventful, even.
Then, during the walk back to their hotel, the quiet disappeared and the events emerged. Strangers recognized Newman. It was time to flee.
“People lost their minds,” Bourdais recalls. “They literally lost it. We were in the elevator on the sixth floor and could still hear people screaming in the hotel lobby. That was Paul’s effect on many fans, and yet he was just a normal guy who just aspired to be treated normally. That was very difficult for him, but he handled it beautifully.”
Like Newman, Bourdais is recognized by strangers. Unlike Newman, it happens to Bourdais only occasionally and almost exclusively at racetracks. But there are further similarities between Newman, the famous actor and racer who died in 2008, and Bourdais, the 37-year-old Frenchman who won four championships while racing for the team co-owned by Newman and the late Carl Haas.
“All Paul ever wanted was to be treated like a regular person,” said Bourdais (shown at right with Newman). “I think that’s why we fit together so well. We always had a great time when we were together. We enjoyed each other’s company, and I relish those moments. Just being with an icon like that who behaved like a regular person really taught me something. An icon can be a regular guy. That was the biggest lesson I learned from Paul.”
Here’s something you might not know about Sebastien Bourdais: He’s an icon who’s a regular guy. Regular despite being one of the best racers of his time; regular in the way Paul Newman was. Even when complete strangers lost their ever-lovin’ minds in his presence.
Bourdais, who has four Indy car championships and 35 victories – tied for sixth on the all-time list – drives his kids to school, often is in charge of cooking meals and lives a tastefully reserved life. There’s no star here, no fussing or fanciness, just a guy who does something interesting for a living, and does it quite well.
“If you think of race car drivers as the classic James Hunt swashbuckling type, Sebastien is the opposite of that,” said Craig Hampson, Bourdais’ longtime friend who was his engineer at Newman/Haas for all four of the championships (2004-07) and has been reunited with him this season at Dale Coyne Racing. Along with AJ Foyt Racing and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Bourdais and DCR rookie teammate Ed Jones are slated to test this week at Sebring International Raceway.
“He’s a homebody who likes to do home projects. He likes to cook. He takes his kids to school and helps them with their homework. He thinks of himself as a family man, and you’ve really got to respect that. … I suspect his kids don’t think he’s cool just because he drives a race car. He’s just Dad to them, and he probably embarrasses them sometimes.”
Here’s something else you might not know about Bourdais: He’s unflinchingly honest, a trait that occasionally gives people the wrong impression. When asked a question, Bourdais gives a direct answer. And if that question pertains to fellow racers who’ve made a misstep, he delivers direct criticism.
Sometimes, though, being frank doesn’t do him any favors.
“I have encountered that quite often in my career,” Bourdais says with a laugh. “The straightforward talking very often is not interpreted the right way. Even back in Champ Car, we would have dominating weekends in terms of results, but if there was something I felt we could have done better, I would say so. People were interpreting that as arrogance or something else.
“I was like, ‘You were asking me a question and I answered it. If you don’t like the answer, then don’t ask the question.’ … It’s sometimes interpreted as whining, but it’s not whining. I’m just explaining things. It’s very tough to explain yourself in this sport without sounding like you’re whining, boring or annoying.”
That misinterpretation has followed Bourdais throughout his career, borne of an intense feud with Paul Tracy and enhanced by criticism of other drivers, the series, his team and even himself. Honesty can do that to a person. When he criticized Mikhail Aleshin last year after a heated exchange during practice before the St. Pete race, Bourdais wondered how the quotes would appear to the public.
“Sebastien has always been direct and to the point, and there are times when that rubs people the wrong way,” Hampson explains. “There isn’t a whole lot of political correctness with him. He’s not here to play games. He’ll tell you exactly what he thinks, and he’ll be completely honest about it. He wears his emotions on his sleeve; you can always tell whether he’s happy or sad and whether things are OK or not.
“When you cut to the quick, you get an answer a lot quicker. You don’t have to have an hour-long discussion with him to figure out what the issue is. You know what the issue is within about 20 seconds. You’re able to set about solving the problem much more quickly.”
Something else you don’t know about Bourdais: He doesn’t lead a crazy life. There’s no mansion, no Bentley, no entourage. He and wife Claire share a regular home in St. Petersburg with children Emma, 10, and Alex, 6. When not wearing a firesuit, you’ll find him in jeans and a T-shirt. Nothing about him is ornate or showy, and there’s a reason for that.
“We lead a fairly simple life, both Claire and I,” he says. “We both come from fairly modest families. We were both raised very rationally and sensibly. It wasn’t a bed of roses, that’s for sure. I just try to be a regular guy.”
Despite the everyday existence, Bourdais often remains mysterious to American race fans. Some of that can be explained by his departure to Formula One after the fourth championship and his run with Peugeot that netted two runner-up finishes in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In the States, he’s relatively anonymous. When he returns to his home in Le Mans, not so much.
And occasionally – most likely a function of the aforementioned honesty – Bourdais’ personality is misinterpreted by fans. So here’s another thing you might not know about him: He tries not to let negative opinions bother him, but sometimes they do.
“Sometimes the reaction of people surprises you; sometimes it doesn’t surprise you,” he said. “Sometimes people get it right and are overly grateful, and sometimes people just think you’re an ass. They don’t really know you, but sometimes impressions come across that way. I try not to spend too much time trying to imagine or understand what people think about me. I try to be as be as fan-friendly and take as much time with people as possible, and because I do that, I take it pretty badly when people who don’t really know me make unpleasant comments about me. That’s my downfall. I should be like most others and just not care.”
One final thing you might not know about Sebastien Bourdais: He actually likes you. That’s right. In spite of sometimes being misunderstood by race fans, he appreciates a well-informed audience and enjoys the interaction.
“Racing can be quite specific sometimes, but that’s not a reason for me to not make an attempt for the people who do care and do understand to explain myself,” he says. “Racing is disconnected from reality at times. People think they know about cars, but what we drive aren’t road cars. This is nothing like what people have ever experienced. To try to make fans knowledgeable can be very difficult, but when you have longtime fans who have amassed so much information and have seen so many things, it’s invaluable. It takes so much effort and time on their part to get to that point.”
Respect from an icon who’s also a regular guy. You can thank Paul Newman for that.