The fascinating story of John Paul Jr. ended on December 29, 2020 when the 60-year-old former racer died in Woodland Hills, California after a long battle with Huntington’s disease.
From Muncie, Indiana, Paul Jr. competed in everything from sports cars to Indy cars, winning the Daytona 24 Hour race twice. He became the youngest-ever IMSA champion in 1982, cementing his legacy in the golden era of racing.
But his career seemed to fizzle out before it ever really got started. Paul Jr. was lured into drug trafficking with his racing driver father, the two of them often competing in the same car. According to the Chicago Tribune, he stumbled on his father’s marijuana stash while feeding the family dog. From that point on, his Paul Sr. had his son unloading weed from boats that docked in Louisiana and driving it across the country.
It was a surprisingly common side hustle for racing drivers of that era. Racing around the globe enabled some drivers to transport drugs and use the extra funds to work their way up the ranks.
When he was 19, Paul Jr. was given a three-year suspended charge for drug smuggling after the family was arrested. He used it as an opportunity to to get out of the trade and focus his efforts on the racing career he’d originally admired his father for.
He settled down. He got married, had a daughter. He was a champion and an Indy 500 driver. By all accounts, he had a fruitful career ahead of him.
In 1986, the federal government came after him again. He was sentenced to five years in prison for drug trafficking, in part because he refused to testify against his father, who received 15 years. While he only served two and a half years, it was still enough to tarnish the glowing image he had begun to cultivate. He had to ease his way back into racing, proving himself one step at a time.
Two crucial things happened in 2001. Paul Sr. disappeared, wanted for questioning regarding the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend. Paul Jr., his son, retired from racing. When looking at the telemetry of a Corvette he was testing, he realized that it was telling him something contrary to what he believed he’d been doing in the car. It was then that he was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, a progressive neurological disorder that sees brain function rapidly decline.
In John Paul Jr., racing had one of its most complex personalities and wildest stories. Our thoughts are with his family during this time.