By Benjamin Leatherman
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While driving under the influence of alcohol in 1984, the now-30-year-old rocker plowed head-on into an oncoming car, killing his passenger and severely injuring the couple in the car he hit. For that he spent 30 days in jail and paid $2.6 million in subsequent lawsuits.
Considering his experience behind the wheel, Neil's recent career change is a tad peculiar. He has jumped from the concert stage into the driver's seat of a prototype Indy car. He's now immersed in a sport that demands superior driving skills and split-second decisions. The former Crueser, who was voted out of the band in February, made his professional racing debut during the Firestone Indy Lights race April 4 at Phoenix International Raceway. He circled the track, clean and sober," at an average speed of 140 mph and finished 12th. His pay was $1,800.
Jim Kofakis, vice president and general manager for the American Racing Series, the sanctioning body for Indy Lights, said Neil, like every other driver, had to pass a full medical examination, including a drug test, before he was granted a license to drive on the circuit. Drivers are also subject to periodic and random drug and alcohol testing and must maintain a valid driver's license to have their racing licenses renewed annually.
Kofakis said current drunk-driving incidents would be grounds for revocation. Anything current we take a hard look at," he said. But we're pretty forgiving. No one is perfect, and if you've made some mistakes and cleaned up your act, then we don't have a problem with it."
Adding to the irony of Neil's new career is his sponsor, the Race for Say No to Drugs" Foundation. A nonprofit group based in Long Beach, California, the foundation pays Neil's teamÏthe Personal Investment Group Racing, or P.I.G. Racing, for short-an undisclosed amount of money to plaster its slogan on Neil's car. Neil, whose troubles with boozing and using began when he was thrown out of high school for drug possession, finds no irony in any of this. Those days, he says, are long behind him and he's thrilled to carry the slogan Nancy Reagan coined on the side of his machine.
I haven't done drugs in seven years," Neil boasts in a recent telephone interview from his home in Chatsworth, a suburb of Los Angeles. Drugs almost killed Nikki and they almost killed me," he says, referring to Crue bassist Nikki Sixx. It's a great sponsor."
If Neil's performance here in Phoenix was any indication, he might turn out to be more than just another ambassador for the Just Say No" campaign. Although his second appearance in the Indy Lights series was a disastrous showing on April 12 at Long Beach (he finished dead last after crashing not once but twice on the first two laps), Neil has been fairly well-received on a circuit that strives to maintain a wholesome, family-oriented image. The third race of the season is June 7 in Detroit.
Rock 'n' roll and racing are similar in a lot of ways. I think it's good for racing," said current points leader Robbie Groff of Neil's emergence on the scene. There have been a lot shakier people who have raced Indy cars in the past. Three of them are in prison right now.
Naturally, there was some fear that he'd be getting in people's way, but he's definitely calmed some people's fears after two races," Groff added.
None of which surprises P.I.G. Racing owner Norm Turley. No slouch at recognizing potential, Turley has signed such drivers as P.J. Jones, Ted Prappas, Jon Beekhuis and Dean Hall. All except Jones went on to race Indy cars. Turley said the lead singer-turned-freewheeler is not a typical rookie.
He has a natural talent. He learns real fast," Turley said. You tell him to drive a corner a different way and he does it exactly the way you tell him. I've dealt with a lot of rookie drivers and he's doing naturally what a lot of people have to give a lot of effort to do." But Neil didn't step into Indy racing cold. He's been racing for years as an amateur, starting with go-carts and working his way up to Lamborghinis. But that's small potatoes compared to Neil's ultimate goal: racing a real Indy car alongside the likes of Mario Andretti and Al Unser Jr. It may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. The Indy Lights series has been a proving ground for many Indy drivers. Jeff Andretti, Hiro Matsushita, Didier Theys and the aforementioned Prappas are among those who leaped from Indy Lights to Indy cars.
For Neil to make the same leap, or even become a regular threat in Indy Lights, Groff says, he'll have to become a bit more serious about racing.
For him to succeed in Indy Lights, I think he'll have to put his rock 'n' roll lifestyle aside because what we're doing isn't for fun, it's really serious stuff," Groff says. He seems serious now, but to take it to a higher level, I think he'll have to focus solely on racing."