Good News & Sad News to Start Off 2021

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After a more than two-week break away from here, it’s nice to get back behind the keyboard. As I much as I enjoy this site, occasional breaks are needed to be able to successfully recharge the batteries. We start the new year off with some good personal news and some sad racing news.

I trust everyone had a good Christmas. We did in the Oilpressure household. We got great personal news on Dec 22, which made it a great Christmas. All of the gifts we opened on Christmas Day were simply a bonus. Susan and I had a Zoom meeting with the surgeon at the University of Louisville that specializes in the NanoKnife procedure. The U of L is a leading center in the US for NanoKnife technology. The surgeon has reviewed all of her scans, lab work and records and says she is an excellent candidate for the procedure. We will travel to Louisville on Feb 1, and she will have the surgery on Wednesday Feb 3.

Keeping my priorities in order, I asked if she would still be able to go to Barber on Apr 11, and he said she should be able to. She will start radiation therapy in May. That will slightly alter our Friday schedules at IMS, but she should be able to travel each weekend and be in attendance each weekend. That is assuming that there will be a semi-normal Month of May.

Once we had Plan B in place and got dates set, Susan’s spirits rose tremendously. To get that kind of news just before Christmas was incredible. So, yes – we had a very nice Christmas.

Unfortunately, we race fans got some troubling news just a few days before the new year. IndyCar driver John Paul, Jr. lost his twenty-year battle with Huntington’s Disease – an inherited neurological disease, with symptoms similar to Parkinson’s Disease. Paul’s mother, grandmother aunt and sister died of the disease, and Paul passed away last Tuesday night at the age of sixty – an age that is getting younger all the time.

Most likely, you didn’t see any mention of Paul’s death on ESPN or any national news site. It got the expected coverage on most of the racing outlets, but I’m willing to bet that there are a lot of newer fans or more casual fans that have no idea who John Paul, Jr. was and what an example of perseverance his story became.

In the early eighties, John Paul, Jr. was known primarily as a sports car driver. He won the overall title at the 24 Hours of Daytona twice, as well as the 12 Hours of Sebring. In 1982, he became the youngest IMSA GT champion at the age of twenty-two.

Al Unser, Jr convinced John Paul, Jr to give IndyCar a try. He joined Rudy van der Straten’s racing team for the 1983 CART season. He crashed in practice for the 1983 Indianapolis 500 and failed to qualify, but he had five Top-Five finishes in a thirteen-race season, including winning at the Michigan 500 – finishing eighth in points.

But life wasn’t all roses for John Paul, Jr. The talented racer was lured into criminal activity by his own father, John Paul, Sr. That criminal activity included drug smuggling, for which Paul, Jr. spent two and a half years in prison beginning in 1986. He was charged with racketeering and refused to testify against his father; who served a fifteen year prison sentence for drug trafficking and shooting a federal agent. John Paul, Sr disappeared in 2001, while being sought for questioning in the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend. So far, the whereabouts of Paul, Sr. remain unknown. Needless to say, the elder John Paul did not provide a suitable father figure for John Paul, Jr.

Spending two and a half years in a federal prison does not make racing teams and sponsors rush to sign you as soon as you are available. John Paul, Jr. did not drive in another IndyCar race until the 1989 season, when he drove for three different teams in a journeyman role. He entered three races for DB Mann, but only qualified for one – the Detroit Grand Prix, when it was still run downtown, and he finished nineteenth. He drove at Cleveland and the Meadowlands for Tony Bettenhausen, finishing sixteenth and twenty-first respectively – before failing to qualify at Michigan for Dale Coyne.

Rides and success were hard to come by. The talented driver from the early eighties was having a similar lack of success in IMSA, where he had shown so much promise before his stint in prison. His talent had not left him, but the good opportunities had. But John Paul, Jr. never hid from his past. It was out there and he dealt with it head-on, but he never once sought sympathy or used his circumstances as an excuse.

The early nineties were no kinder to Paul, Jr. From 1990 through 1995, he had five Indianapolis 500 starts and one start at Phoenix. Other than a tenth-place finish in the 1992 Indianapolis 500, he had fairly forgettable results in that span. When the Indy Racing League was formed, it was a rebirth to the racing career of John Paul, Jr. He got a fulltime ride with PDM Racing and scored five Top-Ten finishes, yet failed to qualify for the 1997 Indianapolis 500.

Paul, Jr. started the 1998 season with PDM, but drove in the Indianapolis 500 for Team Pelfrey, where he scored a seventh place finish. He finished the season with Byrd-Cunningham Racing, when he earned his second career IndyCar win at Texas – fifteen years after his first career win at Michigan.

Unfortunately, 1999 would be the last season that John Paul, Jr. would drive in an IndyCar race – at Texas, where he finished eighteenth. That year also saw him involved in the crash at Charlotte, when a loose wheel from Stan Wattle’s car was struck by the car of John Paul, Jr and was sent over the catch-fencing coming out of Turn Four, killing three spectators.

After some not so successful attempts at sports car racing, John Paul, Jr. retired from racing in 2001. By this time, symptoms of Huntington’s disease were already beginning to surface and he said it was affecting his racing.

When he was still with The Indianapolis Star, Curt Cavin traveled to California in 2014, to spend time with the ailing IndyCar driver. He wrote an article where he described Paul’s past – the racing past and the prison past. The article also detailed Paul’s daily regimen as he went through grueling therapy to stave off the effects of the inherited disease.

After struggling with the crippling disease for almost half of his adult life, the struggle ended last Tuesday night, December 29, 2020. Like the other parts of his life, John Paul, Jr. faced his condition head-on. He never allowed his disease to be a crutch or an excuse. Those closest to him say that he dealt with it with courage and dignity.

Some people seemed to live a charmed life, while others appear to have been dealt more than their fair share of rotten luck. John Paul, Jr. never blamed his prison sentence on bad luck or his father. Instead, he chose to say that he himself made those bad choices.

Some will choose to remember John Paul, Jr. for the choices he made that led him to prison. Others will focus on a promising IndyCar career that got derailed and never recovered. For me, I choose to remember John Paul, Jr. for being the man that he was and never blaming anyone for his circumstances. Yes, he knew right from wrong and he chose to do wrong. He paid the price and  then lived out the remainder of his life with an inherited disease with courage and dignity.

Just as the racing community was dealing with the cruel news of John Paul, Jr.’s death; it was rocked by the news that Aldo Andretti, identical twin-brother of Mario, passed away the evening of December 30 – of complications from COVID-19. Mario Andretti tweeted out that he was "…shaken to my core". That’s understandable. My father was an identical twin. When he died of pancreatic cancer in 1994, his identical twin-brother was also shaken. He described it as unsettling that his genetic duplicate would get cancer for no explained reason. My uncle lived another six years, however, before dying in his sleep after suffering an apparent stroke.

Mario Andretti appears to have led a charmed life. Yes, his wife died in the summer of 2018 and he lost several friends in racing over the years – most notably, his Formula One teammate, Ronnie Peterson, just as Mario clinched the 1978 Formula One World Championship. He also describes the day of the 1992 Indianapolis 500 as one of his darkest days in racing. His son, Michael, came agonizingly close to winning the race that day, but fell out with just eleven laps to go. Mario himself was injured in a crash that day and required surgery, but his misery paled in comparison to son Jeff’s injuries after slamming the wall head-on. Although Jeff would race again, the family feared for his life.

Still, Mario had many more good days in racing than bad. Twin-brother Aldo could not make that claim, as his life was more star-crossed. Aldo Andretti came close to death in not one, but two racing accidents. In 1959, while he and Mario were sneaking off to race without their parent’s knowledge, Aldo was in a severe crash that left him in a coma for days. Mario took the beating from their father for the both of them. Aldo recovered and raced again, but a serious sprint car accident ten years later ended his career and almost his life.

Aldo sat on the sidelines, while his identical twin enjoyed racing success. He watched Mario become the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, then a multiple pole-winner, and then an Indianapolis 500 champion; along with winning the Daytona 500 and the Formula One World Championship. Aldo did get to see his son, John Andretti, become an IndyCar race winner and enjoy moderate success in IndyCar, NASCAR and NHRA. Aldo also had to watch his son die of colon cancer almost a year ago, after a courageous three-year battle.

It would have been understandable for Aldo to be bitter for missing out on the success his twin-brother enjoyed. But he was never bitter about living in the shadow of his more famous sibling. He drew the short straw many more times than Mario, but he never complained or sulked. Instead, Aldo basked in the success of Mario and never exclaimed that it should have been him.

As we start the new year with hope and optimism and look forward to the 2021 IndyCar season being a lot more normal; please remember the families of John Paul, Jr. and Aldo Andretti.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “Good News & Sad News to Start Off 2021”

  1. May I add a mention of the passing of Oscar Koveleski, founder of Auto World a company selling auto racing related slot cars , modeling kits etc. as a kid the catalog was the wish book . Koveleski was a participant in the Can Am and ran in the Cannonball Sea to Shining Sea event. The end of 2020 brought more sadness to the racing community.

  2. Great news about the surgery. It was a rough end of the year for racing fans.

  3. John Carr Says:

    Congrats on your wonderful Christmas news and present.

    I’m a senior so I remember John Paul Jr. Thanks for sharing his and his families story.

    My condolences to the Paul and Andretti families.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Very happy to hear your and Susan’s Christmas news!

  5. I think everyone who follows your blog is hoping and praying for more good news about Susan. There are very few people I know who have attacked her disease with the positivity and courage she has.

    As to racing, I think this past year, while having a few high points, has been one we would rather forget. Hopefully, we will return to some sense of normalcy, at least by the time May rolls around.

    You know as I do how badly Mr. Penske wanted fans for the 500. It had to have been a tremendous business loss for the series’ premier event to take, but they soldiered on and brought it to fruition, albeit 3 months late.

    Every year there are a few losses; fortunately, more of those losses are conventional in nature, thanks in large part to the advancements made in safety and technology. That doesn’t make those losses hurt any less, but as someone once said, “There are old race drivers and there are bold race drivers. But there are no old, bold race drivers,” is not as true today.

    Maybe the biggest “loss” of 2020 is the retirement of Donald Davidson. I recall his introduction on the IMS radio network and how he amazed Sid Collins.

    Those of us who were regular listeners to “The Talk of Gasoline Alley” recognize that Donald was a man who was obsessed (in a good way) with Indy Car racing and its history.

    • James T Suel Says:

      John Paul Jr and Aldo Andretti are both examples of great potential, that never came to be. Condolences to both families. Its really been a tuff couple of years for the Andretti family with Mario’s wife Deann and John and now Aldo.

  6. James T Suel Says:

    Great news for you and Susan. All the best!!

  7. Continued prayers and blessings for Susan! 🙏 You guys have had a tough year as well!! Hope to see both of you at Indy!! 👍

  8. What wonderful news about Susan’s surgery in Feb. It is indeed a blessing.

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