John Della Penna, the car owner who chased his dream all the way to the Indianapolis 500, has died at the age of 68 after a battle with cancer.
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Della Penna idolized Juan Manuel Fangio growing up and wanted to be a race driver, so he moved to America in 1969 but decided he was better suited for ownership than driving, and began fielding cars in 1984. He helped the careers of Willy T. Ribbs, Jimmy Vasser, Clint Mears, Jamie Galles and Juan Manuel Fangio II, but made his mark with Richie Hearn.
“John always believed in me and we had a good relationship, he did a lot for me,” said Hearn, who won the 1995 Toyota Atlantic title for Della Penna before they moved in the Indy Racing League and Championship Auto Racing Teams in 1996. “He sacrificed a lot to get to the top of open-wheel racing and took me with him.
After Vasser got Della Penna’s Atlantic program off to a winning start in 1990, Hearn won a shootout at Sonoma for Della Penna’s Atlantic ride in 1993 and spent the next two years honing his skills in that competitive series that ran alongside Indy Lights in conjunction with CART races. In ’96, the first year of the open-wheel split, Della Penna opted to run both IRL and CART races because Indianapolis had always been his goal and it was no longer part of CART’s schedule.
“I’ve been getting some flak from both groups because they say I’m playing both sides of the fence, but I wasn’t going to miss Indy and I love the CART series, so I’m going to do what’s best for this team,” he said in a 1996 interview.
As it turned out, Hearn finished third at Indy before winning the pole at New Hampshire and capturing the season finale at Las Vegas. He also competed in CART races at Long Beach, Toronto and Laguna Seca.
In 1997, they made the full-time move to CART and during the next three years Hearn made 56 starts in three different types of chassis with two different engines and had a best showing of fifth at Michigan and sixth at Milwaukee and Vancouver.
“We were a small team and never had the right combination,” reflected Hearn. “But I was very lucky, I never had too bring any money to the team, just my helmet, and ’96 was the highlight of my career. It’s interesting because I was never afraid of crashing with John because he had so much faith in me, and a lot of guys are scared to push hard and never show what they’ve got because of the fear of crashing.”
Bobby Rahal pursued Hearn for 1999 but he remained loyal to Della Penna before ending their relationship in 2000, when Norberto Fontana and Memo Gidley shared the underpowered ride. The team folded at the end of the season and John went into TV work for a few years.
Gidley was set to bring him to Laguna Seca last weekend before getting a call from his family that John’s health was deteriorating rapidly and that he wanted to spend his final days at home.