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Flat Spot On: The Brilliant, Star-Crossed Paul Jr.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, January 20 2021

John Paul Jr. celebrates IRL victory at the Texas Motor Speedway, 15 years after winning at Michigan. Paul passed away on Dec. 29.

A long time ago, I decided not to write about John Paul Jr. except for race reports at events where he was competing. There was plenty to write about, no doubt. He was famous – and infamous – to borrow another writer’s line. In any event, I was always glad to see him and talk with him at races. After his recent passing, it’s time for me to write something about this remarkable person.

My friendship with a man who was almost a decade younger, who died shortly after Christmas, did not prevent me from writing a feature newspaper story or a magazine piece about him during the four decades I knew him. Many of motor racing’s best writers pull off writing well and accurately about friends. Much to the dismay of newspaper and magazine editors everywhere, racing writers are invariably closer to and friendlier with the people they cover, as well as developing deep enmities with some. As journalism goes, in the right hands none of these things matter when it comes to getting to the heart of something more akin to the truth than a collection of facts. 

My recollections of John are many since he was one of those drivers who I got to know early in our respective careers. I first met him just before the start of his greatest season – at age 22 – in the paddock at Daytona prior to the 24-hour. That year he co-drove to victory in the Rolex 24, Sebring 12-hour and won the Camel GT championship. The day I met him, he was already a star, having driven through a smokescreen from a wreck to beat Brian Redman on the last lap of the IMSA finale at Daytona the previous fall, an act of typical bravery that would come to distinguish him—in addition to not bragging about such feats afterward.

Standing at the back of the JLP Racing hauler at Daytona the day before the start of the Rolex 24, he was tall and still slightly gangly, the loose limbs of late teenage growth having been corralled at last. As with most great racing stars, their sensibility is evident from the outset. They already recognize themselves as a straw capable of stirring the drink and have decided how they’ll respond. Redman, for example, would always be the high priest of articulation and enthusiasm with a British accent, telling stories about racing being “a crucible of life.” A. J. Foyt, to take another example, decided early on he would just be his usual wily self, which meant a very wide variety of things on any given day, with a Texas accent, of course.

A happy John Paul Jr. in victory lane after Rolex 24 at Daytona with the Dyson team, son Jonathan and daughter Alexandra.

Looking back, meeting John for the first time reminded me of my first meeting with Dale Earnhardt. I met the future seven-time NASCAR champion sitting on the tailgate of his team’s hauler at Darlington, shortly after he won his first Cup race as a rookie at Bristol. His North Carolina drawl oozed confidence as well as friendliness, as if he took a lot of joy in being the man everybody wanted to talk to and thinking he wanted to share part of that same joy. Later that day, he unexpectedly chucked me on the shoulder as I walked past in the garage. (This will surprise a lot of people, because of “The Intimidator” persona that soon came to pass. This persona was Earnhardt’s way, in part, of guarding himself from being the guy everybody still wanted to talk to even when he lost. He hated losing far more than he liked winning.)

I met John, who grew up sans accent in Indiana before moving to JLP Racing’s headquarters in Lawrenceville, Ga., three years after meeting Earnhardt. John had an openness and, when combined with his natural charisma and his emerging star status, was someone a writer looking for comments could find pretty damned cool. Unlike eventual champion Earnhardt, John would experience a lot of losses going forward, but he never lost that openness and humility, or the charisma and driving talent for that matter. Similar to Earnhardt, whose private side was very outgoing, John developed many, many friends in racing as well as admirers who had chance encounters over the years, some of them fans, some who worked in the sport.

Junior Johnson, the NASCAR driver and team owner, himself no stranger to fame or bravery, happened to be watching from one of the suites at Daytona in the fall of 1981 when John swept past Redman on the final lap. He predicted a very positive future and opined that John could have a future in NASCAR. Although strapping and strong, physically able to withstand any punishment that a heap of welded iron and 750 horsepower might hand out, it was not to be for John (with the exception of one lone NASCAR oval race at Pocono in a Cup car and one start at Watkins Glen). 

Making the leap to Indy cars in a year-old chassis purchased from Penske Racing in 1983 after his sports car championship, I remember watching John going through a hurried fitting at the upper end of the pit lane at the Atlanta Motor Speedway prior to CART practice on a banked oval where average speeds broke 200 mph. Chief Mechanic Phil Casey was directing what was a harried process, as one might expect for a newly put together team owned by Count Rudy van der Straten, who stood by patiently in all his wizened racing wisdom. Before the weekend of CART’s season opener was over, the tall, ill-fitting driver had qualified 16th and hauled his year-old chassis up to third place. It was one helluva debut, unfortunately one that would serve as a metaphor for the rest of John’s career—a few brief sparkling moments, but mostly spent trying to salvage victory from a nigh impossible situation.

John Paul Sr. and Jr. in happier times after victory in Rolex 24.

Everybody in racing can recall the situation. Despite beating Rick Mears and his new Penske on the last lap at Michigan in the same year-old Penske-Cosworth and winning the pole at Las Vegas before narrowly getting beat by Mario Andretti, John’s career was effectively over at age 23 because of events that became public the following year of 1984. His father, John Paul Sr., the owner of JLP Racing and often John’s co-driver, was indicted on marijuana smuggling and the attempted murder of a federal witness. An international manhunt later ensued and conspiracy charges were filed against John Jr., motivated by his decision to refuse to testify against his father while the latter was still on the lam. John went to prison instead of what was surely a lot of victory lanes.

After his release while still in his twenties, future prospects in serious jeopardy, John logged thousands of miles of two-wheeled, chain-driven speed. One can only imagine what thoughts passed through his mind while underneath a helmet on many a lonely highway riding a juggernaut at triple-digits. I tend to think, in addition to reacquainting himself with balancing life on the edge of forward motion, it was a way of expiating the anger about his fate and deciding he was not going to dwell on it.

At this point in the story, the alert reader will likely have noticed a story line that talent like John’s would have created an opportunity in racing no matter what, especially under normal circumstances of a son following a father into the sport. Perhaps that’s why John chose loyalty to a father who, by all evidence, had become psychotic. Maybe he just had the wisdom to accept that one doesn’t get to choose one’s own father and he’s the only one you’ll ever have. In any event, those who would condemn the son for the actions of his father, well, move along, nothing to see here.

A lot of cultures put loyalty high up on the list of most important values. Racing is a bit dicey on this subject due to a kaleidoscope of constantly changing alliances that are inherent in a sport driven by equipment from manufacturers and sponsor dollars as well as a sport where there’s always disputes about who’s lifting too early in the corners or who is fielding manure boxes to begin with. For all the stories written about John and all the social media comments, I don’t recall too many that focus on his loyalty—to a despotic father, who, as those who were around him knew, did on occasion have his intelligence and charm; a mother who passed along dreaded Huntington’s Disease; or to a sport he served well despite his circumstances.

John struggled for opportunities and when presented a good car he did well, particularly in sports cars. Phil Conte and Rob Dyson, among others, continued to put John in their IMSA prototypes. He won four GTP poles at Daytona, Miami, Sebring and Riverside in Conte’s fast but not always reliable March-Buick prior to his prison term. He co-drove to victory in the Rolex 24 for Dyson Racing in 1998, one of six victories in Riley & Scott-Fords with the team. In 1999, following a one-off drive at Le Mans, John won a pole at Sebring while driving for Corvette Racing, hired as the team’s third driver for endurance events. A team backed by GM, the Corvette deal was his first real corporate gig, which came 17 years after winning the Camel GT title. John often paid his mortgage each year by qualifying underperforming cars at the Indy 500 and then surviving the race well enough to make some purse money.

Driven by sponsor dollars, CART team owners may have had little place for John. But Indy Racing League team owner Jonathan Byrd won a race in 1999 on the daunting, high-speed banks of the Texas Motor Speedway with John at the wheel and longtime IMSA Crew Chief Clayton Cunningham calling the winning strategy. (That ride disappeared after an incident in an IRL race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway a short while later, where a tire knocked off during Stan Wattles’ collision with the wall went into the grandstand and killed three people. It appeared that John’s car, in gaggle of traffic, hit the wheel and launched it. Talk about star-crossed…)

One could say that it was out of loyalty to his mother and sister, who also died of Huntington’s Disease, that John dedicated himself to raising money for research and finding a cure, participating in a UCLA research project and taking up residence nearby. Once the debilitation was enough to prevent him from even driving a road car in his forties, much less a motorcycle, John stayed in shape as best he could for as long as he could to help fight the disease. He spent time with his many friends, who sometimes dropped in from the SoCal neighborhood and sometimes flew across the country to visit, and kept up with racing.  

When I crossed paths with John at a Porsche Rennsport gathering in Daytona or the Long Beach Grand Prix early in the 2000s, he had the same shining light in his eyes and smile. It was clear the gangly kid I met in Daytona still enjoyed being at the race track. We were friends for all the usual racing reasons, plus one more. We had something in common. My father was a Jekyll-Hyde character due to alcoholism, alternately avuncular and supportive when sober and too often vicious when not. It was a situation that preyed upon my loyalty on more occasions than I’d care to acknowledge, a situation I once talked with John about. I couldn’t have imagined going though the kind of public disapprobation John faced in a situation that had to have been profoundly painful for him once it became clear his father was falling into psychotic episodes, quite possibly due to cocaine use, much less his father’s “career” turn to smuggling after being a Harvard-educated financial wizard in the Mutual Fund markets as a corporate employee in Boston.

Yet, John pulled off something of a miracle reminiscent of those last laps at Daytona and Michigan. He continued in the sport he loved as long as he could, living and dying, after two decades of facing up to his neurological disease, on his own terms.

Before the pandemic hit, I had plans to go the Long Beach Grand Prix weekend in April of last year as part of a book promotion tour and was hoping to have a chance to visit John. We had stayed connected occasionally through Facebook, thanks to his longtime companion Darlene Gray typing his messages. All along, I figured there would be enough stories about this family tragedy without me adding one more. Besides, I also figured editors weren’t interested in the person as much as the saga and all its lurid details. I don’t mind lurid and I don’t mind details. But what’s the use of being a self-employed writer if you can’t choose your loyalties?

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram is in his 44th year of covering motor racing. His current book is “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing.” Signed copies are available at www.jingrambooks.com)


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, January 20 2021
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