CONCORD, N.C. — It’s always a bad thing to hear of a friend’s passing.
It’s even worse when that friend could have been one of the biggest stars in Indy car racing had it not been for events that were somewhat out of his control.
John Paul Jr. passed late in December after a long battle with a neurological condition (Huntington’s disease). He was 60 years old.
Paul Jr. was a two-time winner of the Rolex 24 At Daytona, first with his family-owned team alongside his father and again in the 1990s with Rob Dyson’s squad. In 1982, he and his father won both the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring on the way to an IMSA GTP championship.
In 1983, he moved up to CART and scored a rough-and-tumble victory at Michigan Int’l Speedway for Team VDS, topping the unbeatable — or nearly so — Team Penske in that event. Paul Jr. was seemingly on his way to future stardom in the series.
The thing that derailed his rise to stardom was unexpected and it cut short his rise during the prime of his career.
In 1986, the younger Paul was arrested and charged with racketeering in connection with some of his father’s business dealings, which reportedly included drug trafficking. The elder Paul spent 13 years in prison for that charge as well as attempted murder.
Paul Jr. spent five years in a federal prison for his part, and when he got out, he went back to racing.
Talent will win out and John Paul Jr. won an IRL event at Texas Motor Speedway in 1998 driving for Byrd-Cunningham Racing.
What could have been, had none of the legal issues occurred, will never be known, but winning Indy car races 15 years apart after spending more than two years in prison tells me it could have been spectacular.
On a personal note, John Jr. is a graduate of the same high school I attended, and he and his father lived less than two miles from our home. He graduated before I reached high school, but he was known in the community as a regular guy.
The era in which he won his first CART race was dominated by the Penske team, with some stout opposition from Pat Patrick’s group. It was about technology then, too, but John was a racer.
How much of a racer?
Plenty. The move he made to beat Rick Mears entering the third turn on the final lap to win the 1982 Michigan 500 was the stuff of legends. As Mears had to check up and go under the lapped car of Chris Kneifel, Paul kept his foot in it and went to the apron to pass Mears for the lead.
He was past Mears in a blink and never lifted, while Mears ended up losing the nose of his car and spinning, collecting Kneifel as well. Paul raced under the checkered and yellow flags for his first victory in what was only his fourth Indy car race.
That move sort of epitomized the talent that John Paul Jr. had. He took a year-old Penske PC-10 and beat the new model PC-11s driven by a pair of four-time Indy 500 winners at Roger Penske’s own track.
Stories like these are never easy to tell. John Paul Jr. had talent and it never materialized into what it could have been. Still, he came out of prison and returned to the cockpit, which says a lot about him and the kind of guy I knew him to be.