Not many people get to see this collection, so when Indy hero Parnelli Jones invited us in we couldn’t resist. By Ian Wagstaff
Vel Miletich, long-time business partner of archetypal Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones, never liked to throw anything away. Those who worked with him found the wrecked cars abandoned on the mezzanine floor, or the numerous used components stored about the place, nothing but a nuisance.
Miletich and Jones had run what was, for a while, one of the most successful teams in US racing and had remained in partnership until the former’s death in 1998. It was he who was responsible for saving most of the 19 cars that now comprise the Torrance-based Vel Miletich-Parnelli Jones Collection, $18 million worth of exhibits that personify an era. “If it was not for Vel, those cars would have been long gone, probably on a dump somewhere,” states Jim Dilamarter, who oversees the collection.
Towards the end of his life Miletich envisaged a collection of his memorabilia. Dilamarter gathered parts that had been used in racing “and plastered them all over the walls and ceiling. He loved to sit surrounded by memories.”
“The cars are now like children to me,” says Parnelli Jones. “We built most of them here.”
Many of them reflect the work of legendary mechanic George Bignotti during his affiliation with Jones and Miletich. Dilamarter is a common denominator, having first worked with Bignotti in the mid-1960s as part of the John Mecom and then Al Retzloff operations. This included being part of Graham Hill’s Indy-winning crew in ’66. What followed was a period when Bignotti and the VPJ team gelled with spectacular results.
Dilamarter and colleague Jesse Sanchez look after the collection “in our spare time”. All the 15,000 items, including three replica Borg Warner trophies, are barcode-catalogued and photographed. Most of the cars have been Indy contestants, although Jones’ Baja 500- and 1000- winning Ford Bronco and the Mustang driven by Danny Ongais to the 1975 AHRA National Funny Car Championship are included – as is a small collection of midget and sprint cars owned by others, including a 1940s Kurtis midget.
Although not open to the public, the collection is used for various events. The cars also travel to such as the Monterey historic races, the Petersen museum in Los Angeles, the NHRA museum at Pomona and as far as Goodwood.
Turn the page for profiles of the star cars in the Vel Miletich-Parnelli Jones collection.
1964 Lotus-Ford 34
It was Jones who held back the rear-engined revolution at Indianapolis by beating Jim Clark’s Lotus in 1963. Two years later the positions were reversed, but by now Parnelli was also in a Lotus-Ford – in fact 34/3, which had been put on pole by the Scot the year before. “It was a big change for me after the roadster. It seemed like a go-kart,” he recalls.
Jones won twice at Milwaukee with 34/3 and claimed five poles. Ford gave him the car at the end of 1964 after which the monocoque was widened and suspension improved. Dilamarter remembers, “Parnelli was not confident in the Lotus manufacturing methods.”
With Arnie Knepper at the wheel, the car was severely damaged during the first pavement race held at Langhorne Speedway. At the time Dilamarter was still with Mecom Racing. By coincidence the VPJ team borrowed a Mecom transporter to move the remains back to Torrance. Dilamarter recalls helping load it and, as he too had to go to California, following it in a pick-up. Little did he realise that he would one day drive this very Lotus at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
“It was put up on the mezzanine and then forgotten about. Everybody wanted it thrown out but Vel insisted ‘no’. It was moved from warehouse to warehouse. I must have moved that car seven times. I eventually talked Vel into having the cars rebuilt. I had heard Phil Riley was the best Lotus restorer on the West Coast and he did a pristine job on the 34.”
There is a 1990s replica of Jones’ 1963-winning Watson, ‘Ol’ Calhoun’, currently sitting towards the rear of the collection, but the Lotus, returned to its original green and yellow, is virtually the first car you see. “I entered professional racing when the rear-engined cars were just coming in so I had the opposite attitude to other mechanics,” says Dilamarter. “Anyone with half a brain could see that the roadster was finished.”
1968 Lotus 56
Parnelli Jones and the gas turbine Paxton STP Oil Treatment Special, their domination of the 1967 race and the failure of a $6 transmission part with three laps to go is part of the Indy legend. The Paxton resides at the Indianapolis Speedway museum but the Torrance collection does feature a gas turbine to remind one of the connection. This is a Lotus 56, the 4WD Pratt & Whitney car Joe Leonard put on pole in ’68, also leading before retiring with a broken fuel shaft.
Both Jones and Dilamarter recall the same story about that. “[Andy] Granatelli had done a deal with AMCO to change the fuel to gasoline and they lost the lubricity of the kerosene,” says the latter. “I was to have driven the car but I didn’t think it was that safe,” remembers Jones. “I made a decision not to run.” However, he carried out the chassis set-up work and, feeling obligated to Firestone and Lotus, lent them Leonard who was then driving for him.
Dilamarter was with Mecom and then Retzloff at the time of the turbines: “I hated them. They were the enemy. They didn’t sound like racing cars to me.” He recalls being disappointed for Jones personally in 1967 but, “his bad fortune was our good. We finished second.”
After Indianapolis, Firestone gave Jones and Miletich 56/1 to run for the rest of 1968. At the end of the year Mario Andretti drove the car at Riverside in the Rex Mays 300. One of the car’s biggest problems was with the brakes on the mile-long tracks. “They weren’t working right. Parnelli tried to tell him but he didn’t hear,” says Dilamarter. The result was that Andretti collided with team-mate Art Pollard and the car was wrecked. It was reskinned, repaired and restored in the latter half of the ’70s. In 1998 some of the leftover parts, including the skins and a partially completed spare Lotus tub, were auctioned at the VPJ facility to Bruce Linsmeyer who created another working 56, also liveried as number 60.
1976 Parnelli-Cosworth VPJ4
In 1974 Mario Andretti, Vel’s Parnelli Jones driver for the previous two seasons, wanted a tilt at the Formula 1 World Championship. Firestone sought to take him there. Thus Lotus 72 designer Maurice Phillippe created the 72-like Parnelli-Cosworth VPJ4 and the team went Grand Prix racing. Jim Dilamarter flew to England to run the operation. The team was based at Griston, near Hethel, with Dilamarter living in Norwich: “It wasn’t the smartest place to be but nearly everyone was ex-Lotus. If we had to do it all over again we wouldn’t be based at Griston.”
Unfortunately the programme had no sooner started than, “Firestone changed CEOs and the new guy decided he didn’t want to be in racing. Even though we had a four-year contract, they gave us a settlement and that was it. They were gone and we were on our own. We got a phone call when we were in South America saying we were out of the deal and now we had to take tyres from Goodyear.”
Dilamarter recalls that, at the time, the VPJ operation was deeply involved in the USA in a wide variety of formulas including F5000, off-road and drag racing, and Indianapolis. “In the UK we didn’t get much attention, we were like the freckle-faced step-children. We never went testing. We didn’t have the money to spend.”
Jones points out that Phillippe did “a great job” with the F1 car. “[Colin] Chapman, when he first saw it, was really impressed.” However, it depended much upon specially tailored tyres, and without Firestone it had little chance of success. During the last two races of 1974, the whole of the ’75 season and the first three races of the next, it struggled on, scoring just six World Championship points.
Three chassis were constructed, the last F1 cars to be built in the USA. Two are in the collection, one as designed with a low air box and one with a high. The latter, blue and white chassis 002, was the more successful, finishing in the top five three times.
Jones eventually had the opportunity to drive one in a demonstration at Long Beach. “I just wish I had had the chance to drive it more,” he says. “I may take it out again one day.”
Champ Dirt Car
Dilamarter was never a fan of dirt car racing. “You got dirt in your teeth, on your clothes, in your tool box. But if you were successful, like we were, it could be fun.” And the Vel’s Parnelli Jones team was even more successful on dirt than it was on the speedways. The King-Ford ‘Viceroy Special’ was an integral part of the team’s consummate period during the early 1970s.
“Dollar for dollar this was one of our best cars,” says Dilamarter. “It had the least amount of investment,” adds Jones. “That car probably made us more money than any other.”
Al Unser raced the car in 24 events between 1969-75, sat on pole nine times, had 13 wins and took two championships. During that mercurial 1970 it won all five USAC Championship dirt races – Sacramento, California State Fairgrounds, Duquoin, Springfield and the Hoosier 100. A year later a contemporary USAC report described the race at the Indianapolis State Fairground as being two in one. “First there was Al Unser, all by his lonesome and able to leap along straightaways at a single bound. Then there was the rest…”
Although built in 1968 by Grant King, this is not a stock King chassis. “There were things Bignotti wanted done to the car, mainly the position of the rear torsion bars,” recalls Dilamarter. “George’s knowledge of dirt cars was one reason why this car was extremely successful.
“The tracks in those days started out muddy and grippy in practice and qualifying but they were groomed so that they would become hard and slick, and that suited our engine.”
The other part of the equation was, says Dilamarter, Unser himself. “Al favoured a straight driving style rather than hanging the back out unnecessarily and burning off the right rear tyre. Not that he couldn’t hang it out; he would just drive it straighter than the other fast dirt drivers of the time.”
‘Johnny Lightning “500” Special’
The team established by Jones and Miletich in 1968 dominated the start of the next decade. Three of its Bignotti-built, Lola-like, VPJ Colt-Fords are in the collection: the 1970 model used by Al Unser to win both the Indy 500 and the USAC National Championship, Unser’s 1971 Indy winner and the car Joe Leonard took the championship with that year.
A photograph was published in 1971 showing Dilamarter hanging out a “Repeat” sign to Unser as he passed the pits to win the second time. However, it is the 1970 car, model Indy 001, which both Jones and Dilamarter describe as their “favourite” in the collection.
“We were so dominant at Indianapolis. If you were a spectator you were probably as bored as hell,” says Jones. “When the race was over that car didn’t have one drop of oil coming out of it anywhere. It was so clean that the officials thought we had switched cars.”
“It represents our team’s time as the king of the hill. We were pretty close to being invincible,” adds Dilamarter. “Al was ‘on’, our team was ‘on’, the car was ‘on’, the tyres suited the car, the engines were perfect. It was one of those magical times when everything was going right. That car was good to me. I worked on it night and day. I knew every nut and bolt.”
In addition to Indianapolis this particular chassis also ran in the year’s other ‘500’ at Ontario, Unser pulling out a huge lead before retiring with a turbo problem.
The only drawback to the 1970 car was that the team copied the tub configuration of its 1968 Lola which only held 54 gallons of fuel, and so had to fit side tanks. One of these on the left-hand side meant that it took longer to fuel the main monocoque. A decision was taken the following season to make a larger tub with the fuel stored at the bottom. Thus 001 was retired after just one, highly successful, season.
Vel Miletich – Parnelli Jones Collection, Torrance, California
1964 Lotus-Ford 34/3
1968 Lotus-Pratt & Whitney 56/1
1969 Ford Bronco
1969 King-Ford Champ Dirt Car
1970 Colt-Ford Indy No 001
1971 Colt-Ford Indy No101
1971 Colt-Ford Indy No115
1972 Parnelli-Offy VPJ-1-102 Indy
1972 Parnelli-Offy VPJ-1-101 Indy
1972 Parnelli-Offy VPJ-1-103 Indy
1973 Parnelli-Offy VPJ-2 Indy
1973 Parnelli-Offy VPJ-1-104 Indy
1973 Parnelli-Vega (Offy) VPJ-2-006 Indy
1974 Parnelli-Offy VPJ-3-101 Indy
1975 Parnelli-Cosworth VPJ-002 F1
1975 Parnelli-Cosworth VPJ-4-003 F1
1976 Mustang Funny Car
Replica 1960 Watson Roadster Agajanian Willard Battery Special