After leading 492 laps at Indianapolis in seven starts between 1961-’67 and dominating but failing to win the ’67 500, Parnelli Jones retired from racing open cockpit cars. Parnelli went on to enjoy a successful second career as a team owner with Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing winning back to back Indy 500s with Al Unser in 1970 and ’71 and three USAC championships in a row with Unser and Joe Leonard between 1970-’72.
Through this time Parnelli continued to race cars with roofs, winning the Trans-Am championship in 1970 with one of Bud Moore’s Ford Mustangs after an epic battle with Mark Donohue and Penske Racing. He also established himself as a king among off-road racers by winning the Baja 1000 in 1971 and ’72 with car and truck builder Bill Stroppe as his navigator.
“My first off-road race was in 1969,” Parnelli recalls. “Bill Stroppe talked me into doing the Mint 400. I told him, ‘No, that ain’t my bag. I don’t think I want to do that.’ But he knew how to get to me because I had won the USAC stock car championship for him in ’64. Stroppe said, ‘Well, you’re probably not man enough to do it.’ And that was like throwing a red flag at me.”
Learning to drive off-road
It took a couple of initial attempts and inevitable accidents before Parnelli learned to drive a little more conservatively if he was going to make the finish and he won the Baja 500 for the first time in 1970. “Stroppe built a Bronco that had I-beam front suspension. We fixed it up with double shocks and I won the 500 with it. I won the first 500 without ever having pre-run it. But Stroppe had, so he knew where to go. It also might’ve helped me not knowing the road because if you know the road you drive a little harder. I about slipped her off the road once but that was all and we won. That was when I knew what I wanted and I built Big Oly.”
Known as ‘Big Oly’ after its sponsor Olympia Beer, Parnelli’s lightweight, tube-framed truck had an adjustable wing for a roof and was powered by a 5.8 litre Ford V8 which made around 400 bhp. “Stroppe wasn’t too happy about it because he thought I was veering away from Ford,” Parnelli says. “But I wanted to beat the motorcycles and everything else. I wanted to be the first one to La Paz.”
Indeed, in 1971 Parnelli was not only first across the finish line in La Paz but he also broke the Baja 1000 record by more than an hour, completing the course in an amazing 14 hours and 59 minutes.
“The officials would get in an airplane after all 300 vehicles had started and fly to La Paz,” Parnelli relates. “On the way down they’d make a pool and they’d say whoever got the quickest time would be the winner of the pool. A Mexican guy, Nico Saad, owned the San Nicolas Hotel in Ensenada, and would always go with them. Before the start he asked me how long was it going to take me and I told him 15 hours and something.
“The record was 16 hours and something, and everyone else put down 16 hours and more. So when Nico put down 15 hours they thought he was nuts. Well, I did it in 14 hours and 59 minutes, which is still the quickest time from Ensenada to La Paz. I had a lot fun doing that. It was enjoyable. I didn’t make any money but it was enjoyable.”
Parnelli’s last Baja 1000
Jones did a few more off-road races before deciding it was time to retire for good. “I came back later and drove one race in a pick-up for Larry Minor and I drove Stroppe’s class seven truck once in the Baja 1000. That was the last race I drove. Stroppe had Alzheimer’s at that time so he put this young kid in as my co-driver.
“I got down to the Bay of Los Angeles and we were leading class seven by about 55 minutes and running third or fourth overall. So I asked this kid after the pitstop, ‘What do you want to do? Go for the class seven win or go for the overall?’ He said, ‘Let’s go for it.’
“And I got about 20 miles down the road just before sunset and rolled the son of a bitch into a ball. Luckily, it landed on its wheels and we got it to the finish. The roll cage was bent and we got it to San Ignacio and another driver took over and took it to the finish.
“After that I was thinking, ‘If somebody got hurt out there at night, you’d be dead.’ You were in an area where it’s not easy to get to. So I decided that was it. I wasn’t going to do it anymore.”
Nevertheless, for many years Parnelli occasionally would take his off-road truck for a quiet drive across the Baja California desert. “I would go down there and pre-run because I enjoyed that,” he grins. “I still have my pre-runner truck. I’ve kept it updated a little bit. I call it my pacifier. I go out and slide a few turns and stop and have a beer.”
Parnelli celebrated his 80th birthday last year but the spirit still burns in his heart and heavy right foot.