The story of John Lee Paul Sr. is resonant not only with the unmuffled thunder of racing cars but also with reports of the crackle of gunfire, a mysterious underground chamber and the rustle of greenbacks in quantities to boggle the mind. Paul once was a racing driver, and a good one. He has a son, John Jr., who's a racing driver, and an even better one. Indeed, young Paul is in the field for Sunday's Indianapolis 500. But the crucial drama of their lives will be played out far from the arena of exhaust fumes and checkered flags.
According to John Sr., who is known around sports car racing as the "old pirate," his bio goes like this: He was born Johan Lee Paul in the Netherlands in 1939, and he hustled for food on the streets during the Nazi occupation. He came to America when he was 15 and lived with his parents in Muncie, Ind. He attended Ball State University and won a scholarship to Harvard, where he washed dishes on his way to a master's degree in business. By the time he was 32 he had made millions in mutual funds. In 1970 his wife left him, taking his 9-year-old son along with her to Indianapolis. He bought a 56-foot sailboat and roamed aboard it, twice crossing the Atlantic solo. After settling in the Caribbean for a while, he emerged in South Florida and added to his fortune through real-estate deals.
The more public aspects of his life were evident to all. He took up sports car racing and in 1979 won the SCCA Trans-Am championship in a Porsche. He had won the World Endurance Championship in 1978, and he would do so again in '80, also in Porsches. He wasn't a particularly fast driver but was consistent and determined, and he was teamed with fast co-drivers, among them John Paul Jr.
He also competed on the IMSA Camel GT circuit, operating as JLP Racing out of Lawrenceville, Ga., near Atlanta. His transport rig was black, which generally matched his mood. He was short and scruffy and wore a beard, granny glasses and an intense scowl. He was known for his independence and volatile temperament and the wrangles that resulted. "Maybe I'm a little too tough at times," he has said, "but I grew up in a tough world."
When Paul brought John Jr. into racing, it was only as a gofer, with the chance to become a race driver. The kid was tall and thin, with long dark hair. He was quiet and mannerly, so humble he sometimes seemed hangdog—he also gathered a lot of speeding tickets.
Junior was the dutiful son, almost to a fault, it would seem. He performed his menial chores diligently and, like the rest of the JLP crew, jumped when Senior barked. He got the bite, too, because Paul was a martinet about his son's driving-education program. Yet Junior always responded with "Yes, sir" and "No, sir." He began his racing in open-wheel Formula Fords and began winning right off. Soon he was a sensation in a variety of high-powered machinery. Co-driving with his father, he won the first IMSA GT race he entered, in a Porsche 935 at Lime Rock Park, Conn. in 1980. The Pauls drove together three more times that year, winning once and finishing second twice; they also placed ninth at Le Mans, with a third driver. John Sr. finished second in the IMSA GT series; Junior, who did not enter every race, was fourth. Junior also raced in Venezuela. He went from 22nd to second in the first lap of one race, and fans called him Mad Dog.
In 1981 John Jr. earned nine pole positions and led in each of the 18 GT races he entered. But his inexperience and youthful exuberance showed; he crashed twice and won only twice, losing the championship to Brian Redman, a veteran sports car driver.
In 1982 JLP Racing had two of the fastest cars in the world, both painted baby blue: the JLP Porsche, a hybrid with a special chassis that shone at endurance events, and an explosive Lola-Chevy for the sprints. Together, the Pauls won five races, including both Daytona and Sebring; as a solo act, John Jr. won nine of 18 to become—at 22—the youngest champion in IMSA history.
Because the team didn't have a major sponsor, it's likely that JLP Racing's expenses exceeded the purses it won by hundreds of thousands of dollars. "When I first went down to Atlanta, I was in awe of the operation," says Junior. "I never really asked my dad how much money he spent. I just didn't feel it was appropriate."
John Sr. won a separate title for his performance in races of six hours or longer that year, and after the final race he announced his retirement as a driver.