JOHN PAUL JR. KEEPS THE FAITH, FINDS SUCCESS IN PEP BOYS IRL CONCORD, N.C., July 20, 1998 -- Back when Ronald Reagan was in his first term as president and A.J. Foyt was the only four-time winner of the Indy 500, John Paul Jr. was a...
JOHN PAUL JR. KEEPS THE FAITH, FINDS SUCCESS IN PEP BOYS IRL
CONCORD, N.C., July 20, 1998 -- Back when Ronald Reagan was in his first term as president and A.J. Foyt was the only four-time winner of the Indy 500, John Paul Jr. was a rising star in auto racing.
In 1982, he won both the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring and made his Indy-style car debut at Road America. The next year, driving in only his fifth Indy-style race, he outdueled Rick Mears on the final lap to win the Michigan 500 and went on to finish eighth in the point standings.
Paul, a 6-foot-4 Hoosier, was standing tall at a mere 23 years of age.
Then injuries and a layoff took him from young phenom to the bottom rung of the racing ladder. But John Paul Jr. has maintained faith in his ability with the same intensity that the man with the same name in the Vatican has.
Today, Paul is 38 and comes to Charlotte, N.C., for the VisionAire 500 on July 25 feeling he finally has himself back to where he was 15 years ago. He had a marvelous Indy 500, leading 37 laps and finishing a career-best seventh.
Then he signed on with the Jonathan Byrd-Clayton Cunningham team, placing himself with a sufficiently funded team searching for the right driver to put them in Victory Lane.
"I was very, very happy to find a home here," Paul said.
"They have all of the ingredients to win races, and I hope to be the missing link they're looking for. Everyone's day comes around sooner or later."
That day could be at Charlotte. He drove from 21st to 11th there last year for the PDM team that believed in him in the IRL but became unwound financially at Indy in May. Last year, Charlotte was his first race back after suffering leg injuries in a crash at Indy.
Paul said he is looking forward to racing in Charlotte Motor Speedway's second night race for open-wheeled cars for two reasons. One, he feels he now is in a position to win. Two, his car sponsor, VisionAire, also is the race sponsor.
"I'm excited about going there and doing our part to bring them home a win," he said. "This is a great opportunity for me. They've got a lot of people coming in, and I hope we're able to put on a good show."
VisionAire builds corporate jets.
Paul's run at Indy has reinstilled the confidence he had when he was a young buck passing Al Unser Sr., Mario Andretti and Mears in the final laps to win that Michigan 500 in 1983. At Indy when he stepped aside from PDM Racing for Jack Hewitt and his sponsor, Paul signed a one-race deal with Team Pelfrey, owned by his Delta (Ind.) High School classmate John LaRue, to replace the injured Danny Ongais.
"It's something I'll never forget," he said about Indy after previous finishes of 15th, 16th, 25th, 10th, 25th and 31st. He had never led a lap before.
"I'm tired of being a field-filler," he said. "I really enjoyed leading the race at Indy. It really is unfinished business. I have not forgotten how to do the job. It's a matter of having all of the variables in your court. I believe I'm in that position now."
The Pelfrey team originally did not intend to race beyond the True Value 500 in early June at Texas Motor Speedway, so Paul sprang at the chance for a long-term ride when Byrd approached him to replace Mike Groff. The team goal now is to win next year's Indy 500, Paul said.
The affable, soft-spoken Paul said the team learned a lot at Texas in his first race with Byrd-Cunningham about reducing car drag. He qualified 10th, but a faulty alternator put him out in 16th.
At New Hampshire he passed Raul Boesel, Arie Luyendyk and Kenny Brack in the first three turns. Brack tried to regain his position in Turn 4, spun and collected Paul in the ensuing collision with the wall. The car's suspension wasn't damaged as he drove the Jonathan Byrd's-VisionAire-Bryant Heating & Cooling G Force/Aurora/Firestone back to the pits. But the bell housing was broken, putting him out of the race.
Paul finished 21st at the Pep Boys 400K on July 20 at Dover Downs International Speedway, as a self-admitted bad shift early in the race forced him to drop out after just six laps.
An indication of the Byrd/Cunningham commitment to Paul is the purchase of a 1998 G Force chassis to replace the '97 used in the backup car. The team bought the new car because it provided a little more room for Paul, tallest driver on the circuit.
Paul, who split his growing up years between Indiana and Florida, likes night races. He participated in many of them during his years of driving in IMSA endurance races, but the only lights in those races came from the headlights of the competing cars.
He has heard few negatives about night races, a growing trend in major-league auto racing. The powerful Musco lighting system at Charlotte provides brilliant lighting with minimal shadows.
"The fans like it," he said. "Gets them out of the mid-day sun. In the South, that can be cruel."
VISIONAIRE 500 NOTEBOOK
Event schedule: The second annual VisionAire 500 is scheduled to start at 9 p.m. (EDT) July 25. Pep Boys Pole Night with qualifying for the PPG Pole starts at 8 p.m. July 23.
Pep Boys IRL practice sessions will start at 2:45 and 5:30 p.m. July 23, and 2:15 and 7:30 p.m. July 24.
Broadcast schedule: The VisionAire 500 will be televised live on The Nashville Network at 9 p.m. (EDT) July 25. PPG Pole qualifying will be televised live on SpeedVision at 8 p.m. July 23. The IMS Radio Network will broadcast the race live at 9 p.m. (EDT) July 25, with a prerace show starting at 8:30 p.m.
*** VisionAire 500 tickets: Tickets for the VisionAire500 are available by calling Charlotte Motor Speedway at (704) 455-3200.
World Wide Web: http://www.indyracingleague.com