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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING / SHAV GLICK

The Wheel Turns Full Circle for Paul

September 25, 1998|SHAV GLICK

When the time comes to nominate people for comeback driver of the year, a vote for John Paul Jr. will be in order.

The shy, quiet-spoken Indy Racing League veteran won his first Indy car race in 15 years last Sunday in the Lone Star 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. In reality, it has been a lot more than just time that has gone on since Paul, then 23, made a bold three-wide move to pass Rick Mears and a lapped car on the third turn of the final lap of the 1983 Michigan 500.

With that move, the racing world thought it had a potential new superstar, a new challenger to Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Tom Sneva, Bobby Rahal and Mears.

But Paul's father, John Paul Sr., a two-time world endurance champion, was a drug trafficker who ended up on the lam from an attempted-murder charge. Young Paul was caught in the web when he helped his father unload a boatload of marijuana from Colombia.

Paul Jr., after refusing to testify against his father, pleaded guilty to racketeering and served 28 months in a federal prison. His father, tracked down in Switzerland, was returned to this country and is serving a 25-year sentence, in part for trying to murder a witness.

Junior found it difficult to get rides after he was released in 1988, although there was no indication that his driving talents had eroded. After driving mostly in sports car races, including the Daytona 24-Hour, which he won, Paul got a chance to return to open-wheel racing when the IRL was founded three years ago.

But his career was threatened again when he hit the wall at Indianapolis in practice for the 1997 500, breaking a leg and a heel. At the driver's meeting the day before the 500, he was given a standing ovation when he hobbled in on crutches to accept the Scott Brayton Driver's Trophy.

Last May, Paul led the 500 twice, then finished seventh. In the Lone Star 500, he beat Robby Unser to the checkered flag by about 10 car lengths.

"This was just awesome," the 6-foot 3-inch Paul said after climbing out of Jonathan Byrd's Aurora-powered G Force. "It's been a long, long 15 years. It's very gratifying to get a chance to win another race after all this time. I'm looking forward to the future."

FORMULA ONE

Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen are engaged in one of the closest finishes in Grand Prix history. They are tied at 88 points with two races remaining, Sunday's Luxembourg Grand Prix at the Nuerburgring in Germany and the Japanese Grand Prix on Nov. 1. Both drivers exude confidence.

Said two-time champion Schumacher, who drives for Ferrari, "I'm looking forward to the next races, especially Nuerburgring, because they fit Ferrari cars. It's up to Ferrari to be considered the favorite now."

Said McLaren-Mercedes driver Hakkinen, "I'm still very positive about winning [his first] world title. McLaren still is a better car than Ferrari."

CART champion Alex Zanardi's announcement that he will drive for the Williams team next year, with Ralf Schumacher, Michael's brother, as his teammate, was followed by announcements that former champion Damon Hill and Heinz-Harald Frentzen will drive for Eddie Jordan's Benson & Hedges team and that Johnny Herbert will join the Stewart-Ford team.

Jerry Forsythe, owner of CART champ cars driven by Greg Moore and Patrick Carpentier, will also become a director and limited partner of the British American Racing team that will debut next year with 1997 F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve as its driver.

OVAL NATIONALS

The third annual Budweiser Oval Nationals, richest non-winged sprint car race in the country, will be run Saturday and Sunday nights at Perris Auto Speedway. The winner of Sunday's 40-lap main event is guaranteed $10,000.

Although it is not a Sprint Car Racing Assn. points event, nearly all of the SCRA regulars will be at Perris, among them defending champion Rip Williams of Yorba Linda. Williams, driving Sharon Joy's car, has won 22 main events at Perris, and holds the track records for 20- and 30-lap races. Ventura's Cory Kruseman, with eight wins, is the closest to Williams.

Also in contention will be Richard Griffin of Silver City, N.M., and Mike Kirby of Lomita, who are 1-2 in SCRA standings. Kirby has a season-high nine wins.

Veteran Jimmy Sills, who won the 1996 race, will not race at Perris because he will be at the 4-Crown Nationals at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, where he will be chasing Jason Leffler of Long Beach for the U.S. Auto Club's Silver Crown championship. Sills, the defending series champion, trails Leffler, 442-360.

Brad Noffsinger, a two-time former California Racing Assn. champion who has been working as a Winston Cup crew chief and part-time Busch Grand National driver, has entered.

The $45,000 Oval Nationals include qualifying and two 20-lap main events Saturday night, with C, B and A main events Sunday night.

MOTORCYCLES

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