He was a natural talent who took IndyCar racing by storm in the early 1980s only to see his promising career hit the wall because he wouldn’t testify against his father in federal court. But it was his courage and spirit over the last 20 years as he battled Huntington’s Disease that truly made John Paul Jr. a champion.
Paul, who died Tuesday night at the age of 60, led a star-crossed life that saw the friendly, gangly kid from Muncie, Ind. jump into sports cars and win instantly before taking his skills to Indy cars, where he passed Rick Mears on the last lap to capture the Michigan 500 in only his fourth start. He damn near beat Mario Andretti at Caesars Palace and stardom was staring him right in the eye.
Unfortunately, so was the FBI and the federal Drug Administration.
As a 15-year-old, Paul had helped his father smuggle marijuana and received three years of probation in 1979.
After taking a driver’s school and running a couple seasons of IMSA, JPJ captured the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring in 1982, won five of the six opening races that season, and added four more as the teenage phenom became IMSA’s youngest champion driving for his father’s JLP Racing outfit.
Riding a wave of momentum, JPJ branched out into the CART IndyCar Series the following year and not only won at Michigan, but opened his rookie campaign with a podium at Atlanta, earned two more podiums, and despite missing the show at the Indy 500 and the next race at Milwaukee, did well enough to secure eighth in the championship on his first try.
At the stage in his career where fortunes should have been rising, his father’s criminal ways cast a shadow over JPJ’s future as the family IMSA team was disbanded early in 1983 after John Paul Sr. shot a witness who was going to testify against him in federal court. Unfortunately for him, that man lived and testified against him. In 1985, Paul Sr. was indicted, tried and convicted in federal court for attempted murder, tax evasion and drug smuggling and sentenced to 15 years.
JPJ jumped back and forth between IMSA and CART in 1984 and 1985, crashing hard at IMS in practice, but things were finally looking up in May of 1986 when he was about to score a first-class ride at Indy. But that same month, he was indicted for his alleged involvement in a drug trafficking ring because he refused to testify against his father. Despite many drivers and owners writing to the judge on his behalf to consider the circumstances, JPJ was sentenced to five years in May of 1986. He spent two and a half years in a minimum-security prison in Alabama before being released in 1988.
Paul was able to get rides at Indianapolis from 1990-1994 but they were second-tier, as the drug conviction caused more prominent teams and sponsors to overlook his services. He got a second lease on his open-wheel life when the Indy Racing League came along in 1996. In that series, JPJ won at Texas in 1998, with the victory coming 15 years, two months, and three days after his breakthrough at Michigan.
Still a winner in sports cars, he began having problems driving a passenger car in 2000 and retired from racing in 2002.
Huntington’s is genetic and claimed his grandmother, mother, aunt and sister. It affects your mood, body movements, coordination and mental state while pneumonia and heart disease are the complications along with suicidal thoughts.
But as his physical condition was breaking down, JPJ was staying strong.
“There is one thing I have to do,” he said in Sylvia Wilkinson’s 2018 book titled 50/50. “I use to think it was winning the Indy 500 and now I know I have to stop Huntington’s.”
John Morton, his good friend and former teammate who was with him over the weekend, simply stated the obvious: “John was a fighter. He never gave up.”
JPJ won in two different IndyCar series. He won more than 20 sports car races, starting in IMSA, at its peak ferocity in 1000-plus horsepower Porsche 935s and a variety of GTP machinery. He won in Trans Am. A black and white photo from the 1980s (below) says everything about JPJ: Patches from three different racing series were sewn onto his driving suit, and it was necessary, thanks to his prodigious talent, because he was always in demand in multiple paddocks each year. Yet another measure of JPJ’s capabilities was demonstrated in the immediacy of his success as he won the first IMSA race he entered, won on his fourth IndyCar start, and won on his Trans Am debut.
As a testament to his vast skills, JPJ ranks among the most versatile — and most hired — drivers of his era. Outside of his time with the family JLP Racing team, he drove for 15 IndyCar teams, spent a partial season in NASCAR, and in sports cars, his team tally reached 40 before hanging up his helmet.
From the Indy 500 to the 24 Hours of Le Mans to the streets of Trois-Rivieres, JPJ was in his element, entrusted to adapt and wheel all manner of racing machines to the front in his effortless style.
Nearing 40, and with all of the turmoil and acrimony well behind him, JPJ was recognized for a lifetime’s work when the brand-new Corvette Racing team came calling in 1999 to complete its endurance driver line-up. Known for his humble ways and disinterest in the spotlight, it was a fitting nod by the GM factory in the twilight of JPJ’s career, and spoke to the esteem in which he was held.
“The IMSA family is very saddened to learn of the passing of John Paul Jr. today,” IMSA President John Doonan said. “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. Personally, I will always associate him with driving that iconic blue and yellow No. 18 Porsche 935 JLP-3. But what sticks with me the most from that championship season in 1982 was the Road America round, when he switched to the red and white No. 18 JLP-4. I was able to watch that race with my father sitting on Fireman’s Hill outside of Turn 5.
“I was finally able to meet John in person for the first time at the Long Beach IMSA race during the last decade. He struck me as a very kind man. John battled Huntington’s hard in recent years…frankly, with the same effort and energy that he demonstrated on track. You will be missed, John Paul.”