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Former Phenom John Paul Jr. Passes Away

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, December 31 2020

A young John Paul Jr. showed big talent in both sports cars and open-wheelers.

IMSA GTP champion and INDYCAR race-winner John Paul Jr., one of the most versatile and star-crossed drivers of his generation, died Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020 after a lengthy battle against Huntington’s disease. He was 60.

Huntington’s is a fatal disorder that breaks down the nerve cells in the brain and deteriorates physical and mental abilities.

A native of Muncie, Ind., Paul made seven Indianapolis 500 starts between 1985 and 1998. His most successful year in the 500 was 1998, when he started 16th, led 39 laps and finished seventh in the No. 81 Team Pelfrey entry in his final start at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Paul racked up more than 20 sports car victories, two INDYCAR wins and made starts in open-wheel, sports car and stock car competition. He also is a member of an exclusive club of drivers who won open-wheel races under CART and INDYCAR sanction.

“John Paul Jr. succumbed to Huntington’s disease, which he’d been battling for a number of years,” said Road Racing Drivers Club President Bobby Rahal, an open-wheel rival of Paul. “His spirits were always high and so many of his friends surrounded him with love and support right up to the end.”

Paul’s diverse career started in the early 1980s after he attended racing school as a teenager. Paul drove into the top levels of sports car racing and INDYCAR with astonishing pace and was considered a phenom in both disciplines.

After participating in driving school, Paul moved into IMSA sports car racing and started winning immediately while sharing the seat of a Porsche 935 with his father in the family team, JLP Racing. John Paul Jr. won his first IMSA start, in 1980 at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut, while co-driving with his father. They also earned another victory and finished fourth in the IMSA GT standings that season.

Paul Jr. won the IMSA Camel GT Championship in 1982 at age 22, opening the season with victories in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring endurance classics.

“The IMSA family is very saddened to learn of the passing of John Paul Jr.,” IMSA President John Doonan said in a statement. “John was an amazing talent and was usually seen battling (in a four-wheel drift) at the very front of the field, especially in his 1982 championship season.”

Carrying a growing reputation as one of America’s fastest young drivers, Paul moved to open-wheel racing in the Championship Auto Racing Teams series in 1983 and produced a spectacular rookie year for VDS Racing. He passed Indy 500 legend Rick Mears of Team Penske on the last lap to win the Michigan 500 in only his fourth CART start.

Other highlights from his rookie season included finishing third in his first CART start, at Atlanta Motor Speedway; finishing second to the legendary Mario Andretti in the Caesars Palace parking lot race in Las Vegas and another third-place finish at Riverside (Calif.) Raceway. Paul finished eighth in the CART standings as a rookie despite failing to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 due to a crash in practice and missing the show at the next race, at The Milwaukee Mile.

In 1983, Paul also won in his first start in the SCCA Trans-Am Series, driving a Chevrolet Camaro at Trois-Rivieres, Quebec.

Paul’s versatility and skill-set also were on display in 1984, when he raced in CART, IMSA and in global sports car competition. He finished second in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in ‘84, co-driving a potent Porsche 956 prototype with Jean Rondeau. His best finish in CART competition that year was third at Caesars Palace.

The highlight of the 1985 season was Paul’s first start in the Indianapolis 500, for AMI Racing. He qualified 24th and finished 15th, the third-best result among six rookies in the field.

Paul’s mercurial career was played-out, however, under a cloud of legal issues involving his father/team-owner. As a 15-year-old, Paul Jr. helped his father smuggle marijuana and received three years of probation in 1979.

Paul migrated between IMSA and CART rides in 1984 and 1985. But in May of 1986 Paul was indicted for his alleged involvement in a drug trafficking ring after refusing to testify against his father. Paul Jr. was sentenced to five years in prison that month, and subsequently spent two-and-a-half years in a minimum-security prison in Alabama before being released in 1988.

“John was an outstanding race-car driver whose talent and attitude always shone above the cloud of his father’s dark past,” Rahal said. “He will always be remembered as an enthusiastic, fun and strong competitor whether he was racing at the Indy 500 or at an SCCA National race. His goal was always to do his best, and that’s what he did.”

Heading into the next decade, Paul qualified for the Indianapolis 500 for the second time in 1990 with Mann Motorsports.

The debut of Tony George’s Indy Racing League in 1996 helped Paul revive his career and showcase the skills that had captivated fans and team-owners in the early 1980s. He was a regular competitor in the IRL’s all-oval series during its first three seasons, from 1996-98. The highlight of this portion of Paul’s career was his victory in the Lone Star 500k on Sept. 20, 1998 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth in a car fielded by Byrd-Cunningham Racing.

Paul qualified the No. 10 G Force/Oldsmobile Aurora 14th in a 28-car field and led 31 of 208 laps around TMS’ high-banked/1.5-mile quadoval en route to a margin of victory of 1.577-seconds over series rookie Robby Unser. Paul moved into the lead on the first of four occasions on Lap 81 when he passed Jeff Ward; Paul moved around Buddy Lazier for the point on Lap 131 and then passed Unser on Lap 163. Paul again overtook Ward for the lead on Lap 192 and held the point for the final 17 laps.

He also continued to compete in sports car racing during the “second phase” of his career, earning a second Rolex 24 at Daytona victory in 1997 in a Dyson Racing prototype.

In 1999, Paul’s talent and humble, low-key persona were rewarded when the new Corvette Racing factory team named him to its driver lineup for endurance races.

Paul’s driving career ended after the 2001 season, when he began his fight against Huntington’s disease, the rare, genetic neurological disorder that also claimed his grandmother, mother, aunt and sister. Huntington’s affects a person’s mood, body movements, coordination and mental state. Pneumonia and heart disease are complications, along with suicidal thoughts.

In a video produced for UCLA, Paul explained how the disease first began to affect him. “It was starting to invade my racing,” he said in the video. “I was having to actually talk my way around the track in segments, basically. I was having to tell myself to turn, accelerate (and) brake instead of it just flowing.”

Paul earned praise from throughout the racing world for his valiant fight of nearly two decades against Huntington’s and for his work to raise awareness and funding for research into the disease. The John Paul Jr. Huntington’s Disease Foundation continues to raise money for UCLA’s Department of Neurology in its research efforts. The foundation’s GoFundMe account can be found on their Facebook page.

Paul is survived by his sister, Tonya; daughter, Alexandria and son, Jonathan.

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, December 31 2020
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