By: Spencer Neff
December 30, 2020
On Tuesday, former IndyCar driver John Paul Jr. passed away at the age of 60 following a long battle with Huntington’s Disease, a progressive, genetic neurological disorder.
In 1979, the Muncie, Indiana native began his racing career driving Formula Fords in the SCCA and finishing 13th in the overall championship. In 1980, he won for his father’s JLP Racing team in their first overall event at Lime Rock Park. Later in the year, Paul Jr. won another race at Road America en route to a fourth-place finish in the season standings.
After two wins in 1981, the team had their best season ever in 1982 during the Camel GT Championship. John Paul Sr. and Jr. teamed with Rolf Stommelen to win the 24 Hours of Daytona, while father and son also captured the 12 Hours of Sebring title.
In September, the second-generation racer made his IndyCar debut at Road America for Herb Wysard’s team, starting eighth but finishing 21st after engine issues forced him out of the race just 11 laps in.
The 1983 CART season proved to be a breakout for Paul Jr.’s open-wheel career. During the Atlanta Motor Speedway season opener, he made his way from 16th to 3rd. In July, Paul Jr. led a career-high 66 laps at the Michigan 500 and made a last-lap pass of Rick Mears to win his first IndyCar race. At the Caesars Palace Grand Prix in October, he earned the lone pole position of his career.
Running part-time for several years, John Paul Jr. made his first Indianapolis 500 start in 1985, finishing 15th after starting 24th and completing 164 laps before a crash put him out of the race.
A year later, Paul Jr. was sentenced to five years in prison on charges related to a drug trafficking ring. Following two and a half years in prison, Paul Jr. was released. In 1989, he returned to IndyCar and made his first start at the Detroit Grand Prix, starting 18th before finishing 19th after engine troubles just 27 laps into the 64-lap race.
From 1990 to 1993, Paul Jr. competed at the Indianapolis as his only IndyCar start, earning his first Top 10 finish in the race in 1992 with D.B. Mann’s entry.
In 1994, he ran Phoenix and Indianapolis with ProFormance Motorsports. After the CART-IRL split before the 1996 season, Paul Jr. got another opportunity in the series.
During the inaugural race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 1996, he led 22 laps for PDM Racing, his first laps led in Open-Wheel competition since the 1984 Caesars Palace Grand Prix. At the end of the 1997 season, he was named the inaugural winner of the Scott Brayton Trophy, named for the 1995 Indianapolis 500 pole winner who passed away in a practice crash following his 1996 pole win.
The 1998 Indy Racing League season would serve as another chance for John Paul Jr. to showcase his talents. During the 82nd Indianapolis 500 on May 24, he drove his Team Pelfrey Dallara-Aurora from 16th on the grid to lead 39 laps before finishing seventh, his career-best run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in what would be his last “500” start.
Following that race, he took over the No. 10 entry for Byrd-Cunningham Racing. In September, he earned his second career win at Texas Motor Speedway, more than 15 years after his maiden win at Michigan.
In 1999, he made three Indy Racing League starts, earning a best finish of 11th with Byrd-Cunningham during the season opener at Walt Disney World Speedway. At Texas Motor Speedway in October, he made his final start with McCormack Motorsports, starting 26th and finishing 18th.
Two years later, he failed to qualify for the 2001 Indianapolis 500 with Zali Racing, his last attempt to start an open-wheel race. Later that year, he retired from professional racing after he began to develop neurological issues related to Huntington’s, which also took his grandmother, mother and sister.
In 2018, Paul Jr. and Sylvia Wilkinson co-authored the book “50/50”, chronicling his battle with Huntington’s. More information about his charity, John Paul Jr.’s Huntington’s Disease Foundation, is available on their Facebook page.
IndyCar1909 thanks John Paul Jr. for his contributions to the world of auto racing and we offer condolences to his friends and family on his passing.
Header Image By Associated Press