The Wheel Turns Full Circle for Paul

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

The speedway season ends Saturday night at Costa Mesa Speedway with riders making their final preparation for next week's U.S. Nationals on the tiny Orange County Fairgrounds oval. Mike Faria will defend his national championship on Oct. 3.

The closest battle in 45 years for the American Motorcyclist Assn. dirt-track championship is coming down to the final three races of the 18-race season: Saturday night in the Sacramento Mile at the Cal-Expo State Fairgrounds, at Las Vegas on Oct. 3 and at the Del Mar Mile Oct. 11. Four riders are within two points. Will Davis and Rich King have 239 points, eight-time Grand National champion Scott Parker has 238 and Chris Carr has 237. Parker and Carr have won every Sacramento race since 1988.

LAST LAPS

Bryan Herta and Greg Moore have been taken off probation by CART Chief Steward Wally Dallenbach, but series champion Zanardi will remain on it for the downtown street race in Houston on Oct. 4. Zanardi was fined $50,000 and put on probation for "taking unjustifiable risks" at Mid-Ohio last month.

Randi Pankratz, daughter of veteran USAC driver Wally Pankratz, became the fifth female winner of a USAC main event when she won a 20-lap TQ midget feature at Bakersfield Speedway two weeks ago. Randi will drive in an ESPN2 Thunder series TQ race Wednesday night at Bakersfield. She is second to Alex Harris, who leads the TQ standings. . . . Gary Tamborelli of Escondido is the Cajon Speedway sportsman stock champion.

What's left of the Unlimited Hydroplane Assn. fleet will be at Lake Mead this weekend for the Las Vegas Cup. Only eight boats have entered and two of them are expected to scratch. Two boats were demolished during last week's races in San Diego, reducing the entry list to a minimum. Picking up the slack, however, will be 18 Formula One boats, with the championship at stake between the Seebold brothers, Tim and Mike, and Jason Campbell. Tim is 14 points ahead of the two others.

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This Week's Races

WINSTON CUP, NAPA AutoCare 500

* Schedule: Today, first-round qualifying, noon (ESPN2); Saturday, second-round qualifying, 8:45 a.m. (ESPN2, 6:30 p.m.); Sunday, race, 9:40 a.m. (ESPN; also ESPN2, tape, 9 p.m.).

* Track: Martinsville Speedway (oval, 0.526 miles, 12 degrees banking in corners), Martinsville, Va.

* Race distance: 263 miles, 500 laps.

* Defending champion: Jeff Burton.

* Next race: UAW-GM Quality 500, Oct. 4, Concord, N.C.

CRAFTSMAN TRUCKS, NAPA 250

* Schedule: Today, qualifying, 10:40 a.m.; Saturday; race, 10 a.m. (ESPN, tape, 12:30 p.m.).

* Track: Martinsville Speedway (oval, 0.526 miles, 12 degrees banking in corners). Martinsville, Va.

* Race distance: 131.5 miles, 250 laps.

* Defending champion: Rich Bickle.

* Next race: SaveMart-Exide 151, Oct. 11, Sonoma, Calif.

FORMULA ONE, Luxembourg Grand Prix

* Schedule: Saturday, qualifying, 4 a.m. (Speedvision); Sunday, race, 4:30 a.m. (Speedvision; also Fox Sports Net, see listings).

* Track: Nuerburgring (road course, 2.831 miles), Nuerburgring, Germany.

* Race distance: 189.677 miles, 67 laps.

* Defending champion: Jacques Villeneuve.

* Next race: Japanese Grand Prix, Nov. 1, Suzuka, Japan.

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