To say that former Motley Crue lead singer Vince Neil has a tarnished driving record is a bit of an understatement.
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."
That's something Neil is in no hurry to do. Although he was dumped by Motley Crue, his former record label, Elektra, wasn't in any hurry to give him the same goodbye. Neil said he met with Elektra chairperson Bob Krasnow in April and the only unfinished business before Neil inks a solo deal is the matter of money.
It looks like I'll be back with Elektra Records," he said. We're just renegotiating because they had first dibs on me, but there are a lot of other labels out there showing interest, so I'm just going to see who's going to dig the deepest." In the meantime, Neil has recorded a cut, You're Invited but Your Friend Can't Come," for the soundtrack to Pauly Shore's new movie Encino Man. The song, co-written with Tommy Shaw of Damn Yankees, is the lead track to the Hollywood Records soundtrack. That should put the rumors to rest that I quit to become a race-car driver."
It sounds like old Motley, it's real heavy. But for this movie, I had to make it a little poppy with a big chorus," Neil said just hours before he was to film the You're Invited" video. It's a catchy tune and I really like it a lot, but I think my album will be a little heavier than that." The nasty split between Neil and the Crue came down in February when Neil voiced his objection to the direction the band had taken on Decade of Decadence, released late last year. The music was more keyboard-oriented than guitar," Neil said, adding, Ôthat's not what brought people to love Motley Crue.
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I was a little bummed at the way they went about it," he said of his firing. ÔI didn't think it was deserved, but I can't blame them for doing it. I didn't like the way the music was going and they didn't like that I didn't like it.
But nobody wanted to take responsibility for firing me. At first they issued a press release that said I quit to become a race-car driver, which is fucking crazy. It had nothing to do with racing. Everybody has a hobby, and mine is racing cars. I also fly helicopters."
None of the remaining Crue members-Sixx, drummer Tommy Lee and guitarist Mick Mars-wants to discuss the issue. An Elektra spokesperson said none of them is doing interviews, adding that the split was due to musical differences." The process of finding a new Crue lead singer is ongoing, she said.
Neil says he's put the breakup behind him and describes himself as a very happy camper." He's close to a solo record contract, his first single is due for release any day, and he's getting paid, albeit not much by rock 'n' roll standards, to race cars. Plus, he says with a laugh, I still own 25 percent of Motley Crue.