Leno: Some people are born racers. I’m not

Jay Leno in the 1999 Indy Pace car

In 2005, I had Paul Newman on The Tonight Show, and as he wasn’t necessarily a chatty guy on the talk shows, we decided we’d have a little race in go-karts. In those days, NBC’s studio here in Burbank had these huge vacant halls literally a half mile long because, in its heyday, it had 10 shows going on at one time. By the 2000s, most of the productions had moved elsewhere. We shot The Tonight Show in the late afternoon, and because I knew we were going to be racing, and because Newman was pretty good at it, I was at NBC all day practicing, hitting 40 mph, sliding around on the linoleum floors. Well, Newman walked in there that day stone cold. He looked at the karts with those steely blue eyes and then, at 70 years old, absolutely kicked my butt. We ran them a few times, and he always won.

[This article originally ran in Hagerty magazine, the exclusive publication of the Hagerty Drivers Club. For the full, in-the-flesh experience of our world-class magazine—as well other great benefits like roadside assistance and automotive discounts—join HDC today.]

People who don’t understand auto racing don’t get how difficult it is. My good buddy Bill Maher once said to me, “It’s just driving a car—so you’re driving faster, anybody can do that.” He was (probably) kidding, but I’ll tell you the story I told him: In 1999, they asked me to drive the pace car for the Indianapolis 500. It was a huge honor, and I was a little nervous, so they put Parnelli Jones in the passenger seat for some practice laps to show me around. You might remember that Parnelli won the race in 1963, and he had driven the pace car in 1994 and ’98.

So we’re out there in a Chevy Monte Carlo on the Brickyard banking, and I’m driving my heart out, and Parnelli says, “Here, let me show you something. Let go of the wheel.” And from the passenger seat, he takes the wheel and puts his foot on the gas and floors it.

We’re going about 120 mph, and the wall is right here, and I can hear the side mirror just going tsst! tsst! tsst! as it’s touching the wall. After a couple of laps, we pull into the pits, and I go over to check the mirror. There is white paint on it from the wall, of course, but when I rub it off, the car’s underlying red paint is still there. Parnelli had touched the wall, but not even hard enough to scrape the mirror. I said to myself, “Oh, that’s why I’m not a race car driver.” Well, that, and I didn’t want to be one of those guys who walk through the pits in the driving suit looking all serious, sucking in their gut, and the suit is just a bit too tight and it’s pulling at the buttons.

Beyond that, I’ve always been more interested in what’s going on in the pits anyway. I love seeing the cars with their bodywork pulled off. I love watching the mechanics. I like the cars; the racing not as much. Maybe it’s because we didn’t watch a lot of racing in my house. My mom was Scottish and would watch “that boy Jimmy Clark” if he was on, but my dad, an Italian, basically gave up watching sports when Joe DiMaggio left the Yankees.

Race-car driving is like sex—all guys think they’re good at it. But I learned a long time ago that racing is an innate skill. It’s a skill I deeply respect in the men and women who have it, and it’s a skill I do not possess. I was never good at sports of any kind, and I think if you can’t hit a baseball or throw a football, if you don’t have that kind of coordination, you’re probably not going to be a great race-car driver, either, because to be really good at it, you need some athletic abilities. I remember reading somewhere that Sir Stirling Moss could read a newspaper from 20 feet. When I met Moss some years ago, I asked him why he quit driving so young. He told me that after his crash at Goodwood in 1962, which put him into a coma for a month, he was always a 10th of a second slower in everything he did. Something had been knocked off kilter, he told me, and he just couldn’t make up that 10th, so that’s when he retired.

The late, great Phil Hill, who won his World Championship in 1961, when drivers were dying almost every weekend, said he was never so scared in a car as when, years later, he would go visit some collector, and the guy would try to impress Hill with his driving. I never wanted to be that guy. When I go to tracks, I enjoy being a guest in their house, but I never assume their house is my house.