Wednesday, Oct. 7, 1998 | 10:56 a.m.
No matter how fast John Paul Jr. drives, he just can't seem to outrun his past.
After his win in the Indy Racing League's Lone Star 500 two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway, virtually every story written on the race included the line "John Paul Jr., who served two and a half years in prison ..." in the first two paragraphs.
Paul once was one of CART's most promising young drivers -- targeted as the series' next superstar after winning just the fourth Indy-car race of his career, at age 23.
Less than three years later, Paul was sentenced to five years in federal prison for his involvement in a drug-smuggling operation run by his father. He served two and a half years at a minimum security prison at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala.
"I figure it's something that's in my past and I can't run away from it," Paul once said in an interview. "It's something that I've got to live with every day."
These days, Paul doesn't talk about his past -- at least not his legal past. In arranging an interview with the Sun, Paul's publicist with Jonathan Byrd's Racing said Paul would not discuss his conviction or incarceration.
But in a candid interview two years ago with Jim Short of the Riverside Press-Enterprise, Paul spoke freely of the incident that knocked his once-promising racing career off track.
Victim of sorts
By most accounts, Paul's involvement with his father's marijuana smuggling business was limited to loading and unloading shipments. Paul said he got into the illegal activity at the age of 15 as a way to please his demanding father -- even though he knew what he was doing was wrong.
"Obviously, it wouldn't have been anything that (would have) happened if I hadn't been involved with my father," Paul said. "But I went along with it. That's the unfortunate aspect of it."
Paul's father, who initially fled the country in an attempt to avoid prosecution, eventually was apprehended and convicted of racketeering and attempted murder of a government witness. Paul Sr., himself a former racer, was sentenced to 25 years in the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas.
In addition to paying his debt to society, Paul paid what some might consider an even stiffer price: None of the big, corporate-sponsored racing teams would touch him after he was released from prison.
"There's no doubt that I deserved what happened," Paul said. "I had to pay for it. We basically lost our momentum as a race car driver, as far as being able to get the rides in the top cars.
"Obviously, the major corporations have shied away, and who can blame them? Having to go into a board room and fight for me as a driver would be very, very difficult, and I understand it fully.
"There isn't much worse that you can try and come back from and still have people trust you enough to let you go out there with million-dollar equipment."
As he prepares for Sunday's IRL Las Vegas 500K at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, however, Paul's bright-red G-Force/Aurora carries the sponsorship of two high-profile companies: VisionAire (a manufacturer of private jets) and Bryant Heating and Cooling.
Maybe Paul is beginning to put some distance between himself and his past.
Paul's victory at Texas Motor Speedway came more than 15 years after his only other Indy-car win, in July 1983, at the Michigan 500. Paul was overcome with emotion as he steered his car into victory lane.
"It was quite a relief," Paul said. "You wait 15 years and you never really believe that your day is going to happen. You know you have the ability to win races but it's another thing to actually do it."
Paul appeared to be on the verge of doing it four months earlier, at the Indianapolis 500. Driving for upstart Team Pelfrey in place of the injured Danny Ongais, Paul led the race for 100 miles before finishing seventh.
His recent success at Texas Motor Speedway has given Paul renewed confidence as he approaches this weekend's race at Las Vegas which, like Texas, is a 1.5-mile oval.
"Being the previous weekend's race winner means a lot as far as coming in there and keeping that momentum going," Paul said. "The team obviously knows what it takes to win these things now and it gives you a sense of calm as a team if you have problems during practice ... there's nothing that says that you still can't win the race.
"It is true that once you get that first one under your belt as a team, they start to roll through the doors pretty regularly. We're looking forward to having an opportunity at Las Vegas to win one for our sponsors, VisionAire and Bryant Heating and Cooling."
Paul is no stranger to success in Las Vegas. When CART ran on a temporary circuit behind Caesars Palace in the '80s, Paul finished second in 1983 and third in 1984. He led the inaugural IRL here for 40 laps and teamed with Butch Leitzinger to win the Professional SportsCar road race at LVMS last year.
Byrd's the word
Although Paul has some unfinished business in CART, he said the prospect of driving in the rival IRL is not something he is even considering.
"I'm tickled to death to actually have a home in this series and with Jonathan Byrd's team," Paul said. "He has done a tremendous amount for me since I've come on board and it has been a huge opportunity for me. I'm just trying to make the most of it.
"I'm absolutely thrilled to have an home in the IRL and I believe what (series founder) Tony George is trying to do, as far as curtailing the costs somewhat and making the racing affordable for everyone. I've done every race other than the three that I missed when I broke my legs at Indy last year.
"It's gratifying to see what it is turning into and I'm happy to have a home here -- there's no need to go anywhere else."