TITUSVILLE — Ryan Newman never dreamed of being an astronaut. A race car driver, that was always the thing.
There's a bit of irony in that he became a NASCAR driver nicknamed "Rocketman."
But there was Newman two weeks ago at Kennedy Space Center, sitting in the cockpit of a 113-foot-wide, 5.5-million-pound "Crawler-Transporter." It was built in an era when the men who flew into space and those who made sure they got there wore starched white shirts, thin black ties and short-cropped hair.
The "crawler," much to his amusement, had been fitted with a touch pad to help computers guide the behemoth, which swills a gallon of diesel every 42 feet, and its Space Shuttle payload down the 7-mile, Alabama river-rock encrusted path to the launch pad.
"I said, 'You guys did the same job 40 years ago without computers. What's so special about new touch-screen computers?' "
It's kind of how Newman feels about his Penske Racing No. 12 Dodge right now. All that technology, all of that intelligence, but so little speed. NASCAR isn't supposed to be rocket science.
Newman felt a lot better leaving Daytona International Speedway in February — as winner of the 50th Daytona 500 — than he feels returning for the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday, 15th in driver points and 111 points out of 12th place and the Chase for the Championship. His next trip to Daytona will be with a new team unless performance improves, he said.
"My goal is to be the best driver I can be and get the best results, wherever that is, whether it's Penske Racing or any other place," said the 30-year-old, who has 13 wins since breaking into NASCAR with Penske in 2000. "I have to be fair to myself and my long-term goals and everything else, and Roger knows that. We've talked about that. It's no secret."
Newman said he has a contract offer, "but I told Roger I am not in a position to fulfill that yet, depending on our performance. The performance of our team and his organization will make or break my position."
Newman auditioned a new ride in his Kennedy Space Center tour, becoming the first civilian to drive the "Astronaut Van," the weathered Airstream with the matted blue interior that has ferried shuttle crews to the pad since the program's first launch in 1981.
It handled just like the family vans of his youth, but he thought it had some potential for mischief as he prepared to ply the roads that dissect the sprawling base.
"He wanted to peel out around the security guard," said Janet Petro, space center deputy director and former St. Petersburg resident. "But we said it was probably not a good idea."
Petro said Newman, who has a bachelor's degree in vehicle structural engineering from Purdue, had a "sense of the history of it" and asked specific questions about NASA programs.
"The engineering and the speed aspect seems to really appeal to him," she said.
Ronnie King, who works for contractor United Space Alliance, didn't drive for the first time since 1995. With little to do, the self-described Dale Jarrett fan had a chance to consider Newman.
"He's shorter than I thought he would be. TV doesn't do him justice," he said. "D.J.'s kind of tall. Normal guy, though."
Newman was better than normal when he last left Daytona. He was a winner for the first time in 81 races. He had 800 horsepower of momentum for what he hoped would be a season of resurgence after finishing 18th in 2006 and 13th in 2007 in points.
But momentum waned quickly amid what he considers engine shortfalls, wrecks and misfortune. He has five top-10 finishes and just one top-five finish in the 16 races after the Daytona 500.
"We had momentum," he said.
But re-entry has been a rough ride.
Brant James can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8804.