Motorsport is the sort of sport for which you require a certain budget, it’s not like football or running, you need more than a pair of shoes… And well, a recent visit to a south and sunny island made me think it could be the solution, of course, it’s a joke ! I’ve been looking at ways to finance my motorsport quest since my early age and it reminded me of the John Paul Sr. and John Paul Jr. story which I came across just some week ago.
Famous for their IMSA domination back in the eighties but also for the way the business was financed, here we are, talking about John Paul Sr. and Jr., one of the most fantastic father and son combination in sports car racing as well as off track and especially regarding the father. John Paul came from the Netherlands and was born there, you know, the country of gouda cheese and coffee shops. A successful guy from the beginning, master degree in business from Harvard and later a millionnaire as fund manager. Easy !
But anyway, that same man began racing back in the sixties through the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and became the 1968 Northeast Regional Champion, a good start but family problem, divorce, stuff like that put an alt to the career and the man only came back to racing in 1975 with his son as a team member. In 1977, they joined the IMSA GT series with a Porsche 911 RSR and Chevy “DeKon” Monza purchased from Al Holbert.
1978 was the start of the racing story with the first major win for John Paul Sr. and Bonky Fernandez in the IMSA GTO class and at the wheel of their Porsche Carrera RSR and not happy with that, he jumped straight to the IMSA GTX class for the next round and of course a mighty and big Porsche 935. It wasn’t enough still with the man joining no other than Dick Barbour and Brian Redman at the Le Mans 24 Hours to win the IMSA GTX (+2500cc) class and take fifth place overall. 1978 also saw him claim the newly introduced FIA World Challenge for Endurance Drivers. All in all, it was a pretty good year..!
1979 saw John Paul Sr. split his racing programs across IMSA and the GTX category as well as the TransAm series still with his Porsche 935. He would go on an dominate the season, taking 6 wins out of 8 races to claim the TransAm title but it was also the start of his legal troubles…
Nicknamed “The Old Pirate”, the man wasn’t popular around the paddock, arrogant, derisive and intolerant were the words used to describe him… And here comes John Paul Jr., the son, who joined his father’s team and drug smuggling business more or less once he had turned 14 years old. They were caught back in January 1979 while loading marijuana from boats onto trucks in Louisiana. Fortunately, they pleaded guilty for possession and were placed on probation for three years and fined 32,500$. Still, it wasn’t finished both with racing and the drugs smuggling…
John Paul Jr. was a very talented driver and made everyone aware of it when he won his first ever IMSA race as a co-driver in May 1980 with his father aboard a Porsche 935 K3 owned by Preston Henn. A perfect way to celebrate the father getting married that same day ! And it wouldn’t stop there, in August at Road America, they took their second win there. All in all, 1980 was a good year again with the father taking the second place in the IMSA Championship as well as the FIA World Challenge for Endurance Driver again and the son finishing fourth in the championship standings.
1981 saw the arrival of an all new breed of cars known as the “GTP” and one of the first to land in America was the Lola T600, something about downforce and ground effect. Brian Redman took the championship with it and the JLP Racing decided to buy one as well even if they still raced the mighty and big Porsche 935 JLP-3 and JLP-4 aside that same year. 1982 saw IMSA balance the performance between the newer and less powerful cars and the older ones. John Paul and his son anyhow carried on with the old car, JLP-3 and teamed up with Rolf Stommelen for the 1982 Daytona 24 Hours and of course, they won ! It wasn’t enough still and they carried on winning the 12 Hours of Sebring as well as the Road Atlanta round that same year which resulted in Miller Beer signing a sponsorship deal with the JLP Racing team. Nine wins were scored by John Paul Jr. that year and so he became the youngest ever IMSA Champion, it also marked the end to the father & son duo as “The Old Pirate” decided to step down from his driving duties.
Success was high for the JLP Racing team but off-track troubles continued, John Paul Sr. separated from his wife, Chalice in 1981 and of course, she vanished soon after… Once the wife was gone, he travelled to Haiti to obtain a formal divorce and marry Hope, the sister of Hurley Haywood. 1983 saw him being arrested for shooting a former associate and federal witness in a drug trafficking case, Steven Carson. He spent ten days in jail and was released on bond and then flew to Switzerland. He was arrested a year or so later in a bank in Geneva. All that plus many other charges were retained and it led to a sentence of 25 years in prison. But how can you stop a man like him ?! Of course, he tried to escape from his Florida prison in 1987 but ended up in a federal prison…
Anyway, the JLP Racing team was long gone but John Paul Jr. was still around with a great talent which kept him racing in CART and IMSA, he notably won the Michigan 500 in 1983, passing Rick Mears in the last turn while recovering from a broken leg he had suffered during the Indianapolis 500 practice, not bad, eh ! A good all rounder as well and like his father which would see him take second place overall at the 1984 Le Mans 24 Hours aboard a Porsche 956. Unfortunately, his shady past and family stories prevented him from finding the needed sponsorship to finance his motorsport quest and soon had to rely on generous car/team owner to let him drive but in poor conditions. He was later charged in his father drug trafficking business and stayed 28 months in prison. He returned in 1989 only to bounce around several teams before Busby Racing offered him a drive in a Nissan GTP ZX-T for 1990 against the factories such as Toyota and Jaguar but anyway, he did well again with 3 podium finishes that year. 1992 would be marked by an IMSA GTU class win at the Sebring 12 Hours in Bob Leitzinger’s Nissan 240SX with Davis Loring. 1995 would see him join the Dyson racing and 1997 would see him take his second Daytona 24 Hours win before landing a full-time drive in the IRL (Indy Racing League) for 1998 with Byrd-Cunningham Racing which resulted in a win at the Lone Star 500 at Texas Motor Speedway with temperatures well above 100°F (40°C) as well as setting the longest gap between IndyCar wins in a career, 15 years.
13 years after his sentence, John Paul Sr. reappeared in July 1999 and moved to Florida to live with his son. He met another woman, Colleen Wood. It would mean the start to troubles again as she disappeared in December 2000. After being asked by detectives, he disappeared as well with his boat and was lated recognized somewhere around the Fiji Islands and is believed to be somewhere around Thaïland now…
For John Paul Jr., things got worse on a medical side. While testing a GT1 Corvette, he realized that the car was not responding to his body and thoughts, driving was no longer natural and easy and he was later diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease, a progressive neurological disorder that causes degeneration of cells in certain areas of the brain, affecting muscle function. His grandmother, mother, and sister all died of the genetic disorder. He retired from racing in 2001, and became a driving instructor.
Today, he struggles to walk and talk, but he continues to fight against the cruel disease. He is part of a clinical study at UCLA’s Department of Neurology to find treatment to halt the effects of the disease. His efforts in the study and in fundraising have greatly increased the number of clinical drug trials, bringing doctors closer to finding a cure.
Donations to the John Paul Jr. Huntington’s Disease Foundation can be made online: