We’re always writing or pontificating about the next big deal in IndyCar racing, and it’s fair to say Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward, Rinus Veekay and Alex Palou are front and center in this conversation right now. Sometimes a kid has all the talent but never finds the right combination, sometimes that step up to IndyCars is too steep, and sometimes they just fade away without ever getting a legitimate shot.
John Paul Jr. was one of the best, and saddest, stories of all time, because he was cut down in the prime of his career by bad blood – literally – and the damaging jail time and publicity that went with it.
Many of today’s younger fans may not of heard of JPJ until his death from Huntington’s Disease last week at age 60, and his name doesn’t resonate with star power when mentioned because of his helter-skelter career. But he was something special, and was speeding towards greatness in the early 1980s. We’ll always be left to wonder what heights he would have reached had his wicked father not dragged him down.
Today’s racers get an insanely early start, and it’s nothing to see teenagers up front in IndyCar, Formula 1, NASCAR or IMSA. For the longest time you had to be 21 to get a USAC license, and JPJ wasn’t really thinking about being a race driver when he was a 19-year-old watching the 1979 Indianapolis 500 in the Snake Pit with his pals from Muncie, Ind. Yet four years later he was running wheel-to-wheel at Michigan with Rick Mears.
A driver’s school and a crash course in sports car racing had him on the fast-track, and he won Daytona and Sebring in 1982 and became IMSA’s youngest champion. Yet we’ve seen a lot of good sports car racers that tried Indy cars and went home COD because it was too fast, too dangerous and too much.
Other than some Formula Ford races, JPJ did a handful of Formula Atlantic and SCCA Super Vee events, but otherwise had zero open-wheel experience when the Wysards invited him to drive their Indy car at Road America in the fall of 1982. Hardly a front-running operation, Wysard Racing found itself eighth on the starting grid (out of 25), and even though the engine blew in the race, that should have opened some people’s eyes.
It was enough for Count Rudy van der Straten, and he bought a year-old Penske chassis and hired JPJ for the 1983 CART season. He recruited veteran crew chief Phil Casey to run the show and away they went with their 23-year-old rookie to Atlanta for the season-opener.
Indy cars at Atlanta were scary fast on the high-banked oval, and Mears won the pole at 204 mph. In his oval-track debut, JPJ started 16th and finished third behind Gordon Johncock and Al Unser. He broke his leg at Indianapolis in practice, missed Milwaukee and came back in time for Cleveland before heading to Michigan.
Wearing a cast on his left leg, JPJ led 66 laps at MIS and passed Mears on the last lap to triumph in only his fourth start. But do yourself a favor and watch that winning pass. A neophyte on ovals uses the draft off Chris Kneifel and Mears, then cuts to the inside going into Turn 3 and heads to the checkered flag as The Rocket and Kneifel crash behind him.
“That kid is amazing,” said Casey afterwards. “He’s got very little experience in Indy cars, let alone ovals, and he just beat Rick Mears. I’ve been working in this sport for three decades and I’ve never been so impressed.”
If that wasn’t proof positive of his pedigree then fast-forward three months to the Caesar’s Palace parking lot – a flat, five-turn, 1.2-mile oval with blind corners and lots of braking and shifting. JPJ won the pole position, made a bold pass on Mario for the lead with five laps left, and wound up second to the 1978 world champion.
“Man that kid really made me work for it,” said Andretti, who managed to get back by the rookie for the win with three laps left.
This is where the story should take off and launch JPJ into some rarified air, like a ride with Penske, Patrick, Kraco or Newman/Haas, but John was loyal to the guy who gave him a shot. It didn’t work, as VDS was done three races into 1984. JPJ ran once for Patrick, twice for Primus and three times for Provimi Veal, making the podium in the finale at Laguna Seca.
For 1985 he was signed up to replace Danny Sullivan at Doug Shierson Racing before the ^%$# hit the fan. John Paul Sr., who had his then-15-year-old son loading marijuana onto a truck in the mid-1970s, was on the lam in 1983 after shooting a man who was going to testify against the drug smuggler in federal court. While his son was making a name for himself in CART, dear old dad jumped bail and fled to Switzerland.
As all this came to light in ’85, JPJ offered to resign his Domino’s Pizza ride at Shierson and Phil Conte’s IMSA team. The first was accepted, but Conte stuck with JPJ, who finally qualified for the Indy 500 with a small-budget team on the last day.
Just think about that Shierson ride and what it did for Unser Jr. and Arie Luyendyk, and imagine what JPJ could have done with it.
By 1986, authorities were pressuring JPJ to testify against his father, but he refused. He practiced at IMS on May 6 and was indicted for racketeering charges on May 7, earning a five-year prison sentence. Despite having many prominent people in motorsports write letters to the judge asking for lesser time since JPJ was a 15-year-old doing what his dad told him to, there was no mercy. John was gone for almost three years, and so was any chance to become an open-wheel star.
He returned to qualify at Indy in 1990 and made the show three more times in so-so equipment until the Indy Racing League came along in 1996. He returned to Victory Lane in 1998 at Texas, 15 years after his dazzling drive at MIS. His debilitating illness began in 2000 and he was done racing by 2001, but throughout his legal and physical ordeals, JPJ never played the sympathy card. He won over his detractors by being about as honest and pleasant as anyone could imagine in his situation.
In his biography 50/50 written by Sylvia Wilkinson, John finally admits his father was a mean person but still never blames him for wrecking his career. He was a humble, soft-spoken racer who gave us a taste of his monster talent before being shackled by a teenaged mistake and uncompromising loyalty to an evil man.
John Paul Jr. won’t be remembered as an IndyCar great, but he damn sure was great a few times in an Indy car.