JOHN PAUL JR.'S CAREER BACK ON TRACK AFTER WIN IN '98 Veteran says he's "dark horse" to win VisionAire 500 By Dick Mittman indyracingleague.com INDIANAPOLIS, April 24, 1999 -- Twenty years ago John Paul Jr. won the first race he ever entered.
JOHN PAUL JR.'S CAREER BACK ON TRACK AFTER WIN IN '98 Veteran says he's "dark horse" to win VisionAire 500
By Dick Mittman indyracingleague.com
INDIANAPOLIS, April 24, 1999 -- Twenty years ago John Paul Jr. won the first race he ever entered. One year later, he was winning GT sports cars races. In 1983, five races into his Indy car career he won the Michigan 500.
His career was ablaze.
But then due to various circumstances outside of the sport, his career turned to ashes. It took him 15 years to -- like the legendary Phoenix -- rise out of these ruins and become a winner once again. That came last Sept. 20 when he outran the field to win the Pep Boys Indy Racing League Lone Star 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Paul comes to Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., for the VisionAire 500 on Saturday night, May 1, no longer a budding young superstar but instead a wise and seasoned veteran of 39. Despite his victory driving for car owner Jonathan Byrd, he knows his status as a full-season contender hasn't changed a lot.
"We're still a dark horse everywhere we go," he said.
The problem is the Byrd/Cunningham team is short on funding and this means the team has to pass on much pre-race testing. He hopes a repeat of his Indy 500 performance of last year -- he led 39 laps, second only to winner Eddie Cheever Jr., and finished seventh -- will open doors that bring on board a major sponsor to join with current associate, VisionAire.
"We really need a major sponsor to take on the Kelleys (drivers Scott Sharp and Mark Dismore), Scott Goodyear's team, the Menard team," he said, "just to make them think we're a threat day in and day out.
"We can win, but it would be nice to be able to go and do every test that they do. And to be there in the top six in practice, which is where you need to be if you want to be part of a team that is a front-runner. So hopefully that funding will come in place with a good result at Indy. I think that will come."
But before Indy, Paul says he is looking forward to racing on Charlotte's 1.5-mile oval because he feels his team and G-Force/Aurora/Firestone perform better on the longer and faster circuits.
"It's a tremendous race," he said.
"The crowd is always behind us. And the promotion that Humpy (Wheeler, track president) and Bruton (Smith, track owner) do there is second to none. It's just awesome. We're looking forward to racing there. We had good results at Charlotte. I like the night races. It's a fun venue in itself."
Paul has driven in 23 Pep Boys Indy Racing League events. His results at Charlotte are 11th in 1997 and sixth last July 25.
Paul started the 1998 season with Team Pelfrey. His showing at Indy caught the eye of Byrd, who had released his driver after the Indy 500. Byrd signed Paul and in their first race together, they finished 16th in the June Texas race.
At New Hampshire, Paul was involved in a third-lap accident and finished dead last. He advanced only another spot from the bottom in the next race at Dover, Del., so the Charlotte race truly was his first break-through race, but then he slipped backward in the next two with 15th and 23rd -place finishes.
At Texas, though, everything seemed to click as he charged from 14th and led 31 laps on his way to out-running Robby Unser, Jeff Ward and Roberto Guerrero.
"It was like a first win; it had been so long since I'd had one," he said.
"It was just a tremendous relief personally for me and very gratifying to be able to do it for Jonathan."
He said the entire team needed the morale boost. It proved, he noted, that the team did have the capability of beating the big boys.
Paul backed up his Texas performance by placing fourth and finishing on winner Arie Luyendyk's same lap at Las Vegas. He led eight laps. Paul placed 11th in the final standings, just three points out of the top 10. His 78 laps led for the season put him ninth best in that category.
The team hasn't gotten off to a strong start this season with finishes of 11th and 22nd. The starting positions of 19th and 25th are partially due to a lack of winter testing. At Walt Disney World Speedway, he was running in the top 10 when he was caught up in an accident that dropped him back about five positions.
"We never did come to grips with it at Phoenix," he said. "Testing, I wreck. And in the race I was slow and got in a wreck, too, so it was really disappointing. I don't really feel it is a factor as far as quality and capability of the team, especially on the big tracks where we're really doing well.
"Coming back to Charlotte and Indianapolis, we should do well."
VISIONAIRE 500 NOTEBOOK
Schedule: The VisionAire 500 starts at 8 p.m. (EDT) May 1. PPG Pole qualifying starts at 6:15 p.m. April 30. Practice sessions start at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. April 29, and 3:15 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. April 30.
On the air: The VisionAire 500 will be televised live, starting with a 30-minute prerace show at 7:30 p.m. (EDT) May 1, on SpeedVision. It's the network's first live broadcast of a Pep Boys Indy Racing League race.
FOX Sports Net will rebroadcast the race May 6. Check local listings for air time.
SpeedVision will televise PPG Pole qualifying live at 6 p.m. (EDT) April 30.
The Indy Racing Radio Network will broadcast a 30-minute prerace show at 7:30 p.m. (EDT) May 1, followed by the live race broadcast at 8 p.m. The Charlotte-area IRRN affiliate is WSOC-FM, 103.7, Charlotte.
The IRRN race broadcast also will be available live on the Internet at www.indyracingleague.com as part of a new partnership between IRL Online and broadcast.com, the world's leading Web broadcast site.
Tickets: Tickets are available for the VisionAire 500 on May 1. Call (704) 455-3200 for more information. Ticket information also is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.lowesmotorspeedway.com .