By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
Few racing car drivers arrive with as much star talent as John Paul Jr. and none from his own era met such a star-crossed career. It’s fitting that a novelist, Sylvia Wilkinson, has composed his biography.
Titled 50/50 – Race Car Driver John Paul Jr. and His Battle with Huntington’s Disease, the book comprises several genres at once. It’s a memoir in the sense that Paul Jr. provides his own perspective on his racing and family life through conversation with the author and in the context of his ongoing battle with his debilitating disease. Given the breadth of ground covered, it’s like an autobiography, except that the book also contains selected comments from many who crossed paths with Paul Jr., including team owners, drivers, crewmen, sponsors and journalists.
Wilkinson turns this approach into a symphony, adding independent observations drawn from her novelist’s eye and deep racing experience. The ultimate goal is to raise money for Huntington’s research.
Within racing, Paul Jr.’s professional story is well known and many are aware of how Huntington’s, a disease he inherited from his mother, sidelined him. What’s new is the intimate view from Paul Jr. of his struggles within his family and in motor racing as well as with Huntington’s.
The book reiterates Paul Jr.’s view of father John Paul Sr., who launched both their racing careers with profits from marijuana smuggling. For the father, this was a far more conscious choice of destiny for his son. By comparison, Paul Jr.’s mother gave birth to a son while she was a teenager and uncertain of whether any bad gene would be transferred.
In Paul Jr.’s world, loyalty and love does not waver toward his mother or the man whose off-the-hook anger and murderous behavior left him a pariah. Among those inclined to be more catholic about the image of motor racing, the shunning extended to both père et fils.
The portrait skillfully painted is that of a once-in-a-generation talent whose destiny constantly evolved between fulfillment and the pain of a broken home, broken legs and a five-year federal prison sentence that broke his career. This left Paul Jr. to the fates of trying to make a living in a sport so self-conscious about corporate sponsors and the media. His comeback was seemingly complete after winning his second Indy car race 15 years after the first – before tragedy struck at the Indy Racing League race in Charlotte and led to the disbanding of his winning team. Then, the Huntington’s struck.
I covered Paul Jr.’s racing career, primarily in the form of race reports, from the time of his record-breaking victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona at the age of 21 with Paul Sr. and Rolf Stommelen in 1982 through the Charlotte IRL race in 1999 and beyond. In addition to an uncanny love affair with high speed combined with outlandish skill and bravado, Paul Jr. always had a sense of himself as both a person and a star. He could ride the ragged edge of revealing who he was without letting it turn into some mindless corporate-speak or braggadocio – although there was a helluva lot of confidence about what he could do behind the wheel!
From the beginning, Paul Jr. was honest and articulate as well as gracious about the fact a star race car driver was expected to stand up and talk about himself. There was a deep intelligence at work not unlike his father’s – except Paul Jr. miraculously managed to become Paul Sr.’s polar opposite in terms of personality. One suspects that love and loyalty, on the other hand, were values acquired from both parents, albeit under unusual family dynamics.
IMSA brought Paul Jr. to the world stage at such a young age in a manner that could not have happened at that time in the SCCA, NASCAR, Formula 1 or at Le Mans. Like all of the more inspiring great ones, he had the ability to find the courage to go beyond the borderline of fear to be faster, first in Porsche 935s and then GTP machines before moving on to Indy cars in CART, where he won on Michigan’s oval in just his fourth career start.
Faced with the moral dilemma of his family life and ultimate destiny of a crippling disease, Paul Jr. has never blinked, a rare meeting of bravery, physical and moral courage. Some of his most heroic moments came when answering heated questions from the media about drug smuggling during his efforts to continue racing after serving 28 months of his five-year sentence. His answers were honest, low-key and humble about his regret and hope to redeem himself through racing. In effect, he made a living by risking life and limb in subpar cars in the Indy 500 and on a per race basis in IMSA, primarily with Dyson Racing.
There’s no ducking of the smuggling issue or making excuses, but readers inevitably will bring the context and irony of so many states currently legalizing cannabis for recreational use.
The low-key size and format of this book make for a surprisingly powerful presentation. A relatively thin tome, the book and its photographs come across more like a family album. That leads to another irony regarding just whose family story is it?
The response of the racing fraternity to Paul Jr.’s saga said much about those in motor sports, some of it good and some not so inspiring. The team owners who hired Paul Jr. to drive in effect became his extended family. Most of them were in IMSA and at Indy. It was Jonathan Byrd’s car, wrenched by longtime IMSA competitor Clayton Cunningham, that Paul Jr. drove to his IRL victory at the Texas Motor Speedway in 1998, where he reclaimed a battered but still shining crown.
Race Car Driver John Paul Jr. and His Battle with Huntington’s Disease
By Sylvia Wilkinson
High Desert Press
Hardback; 143 pages.
Available at www.johnmortonracing.net/5050-john-paul-jr
$40 + $4 S&H (Media Mail).