From Jalopies to stock cars, Baja to the Brickyard, Parnelli Jones could drive anything, anywhere. Pete Lyons catches up with a US motorsport colossus
Say the name, and even after all these years it means something special, something increasingly rare.
Parnelli Jones is a product of American dirt tracks, the ‘bull rings’ where he learned his hard-charging, sometimes bullying style. That as well as the driving experience, mechanical skills and racing savvy he gained there took him to racing immortality at the Indianapolis 500.
But he mastered so much more: Midgets and sprint cars, stock cars of both the NASCAR and USAC varieties, Can-Am sports cars, Trans-Am ‘pony cars,’ Baja desert racing, the Pikes Peak hill climb – twice, two more Indy victories as an owner… He even fielded a valiant effort in Formula 1. Indeed, Colin Chapman once offered him a GP Lotus ride. Parnelli Jones turned him down.
A singular man.
“I’ve always been extremely aggressive and not very smart. I could’ve won more if I’d have been smarter.”
Parnelli Jones can say things like that about himself with an easy smile. He won enough races – in so many different disciplines – to make himself an American legend, and was plenty smart enough to parlay his track fame into great success in business ventures – again, of many kinds.
Today, a three-time granddad at 73, Parnelli looks as fit, as rawhide-tough, as ever. He spoke with Motor Sport from the command center of his commercial empire in Torrance, California, a two-story office-cum-race shop absolutely festooned with trophies, photos and other memorabilia, including one of the world’s most impressive personal race car collections. This son of a one-time impoverished farm worker has pulled himself up a very long way.
Though a Californian since his second year, he was born in Arkansas on 12 August 1933, to Commodore (always called ‘CP’) and Dovie Jones. “My mother worked for a judge named Rufus Parnell, and he was the most successful guy she knew, so she named me after him.
“I went all through school as Rufus, except for my buddy Billy Calder. I liked a girl whose name was Nellie, and to tease me he called me ‘Parnellie.’ When I started [race] driving I was only 17 years old, and you had to be 21. It was at [nearby] Carroll Speedway, and if I had tried to go by Rufus all the kids would have known I wasn’t 21 and it would have got around real quick.
“Billy was very artistic, and he’s the one that lettered my car, made me a phony identification. In fact he used to spell it ‘Parnellie’ at the beginning.”
From that subterfuge and other evidence, it’s pretty clear the Jones boy was born to race. “When I was real young I was a fighter in school. I was kinda small and I wouldn’t take nuthin’ from nobody.
“I liked horses, and at 11 or 12 I was cleaning out stables for a trainer. They let me ride the horses in these quarter-mile races, and I liked it, because it was competitive. Then suddenly I grew too big!”
Young Rufus sold his own horse to buy a car. A hot rod, of course; he was in Torrance in the heart of Southern California, after all. After school, he’d work as a mechanic, and pick up more cash by disassembling old cars for scrap – once he was done rolling them for recreation.
“Yeah, ones I could get running I used to drive to a field and dig ramps and flip ’em. One day this guy wanted to try it, but he only was getting it up on two wheels. So I said, ‘Let me show you how,’ and I just rolled it up in a ball. Almost hurt myself. That kinda cured me.”
The teenager’s interest in racing was stoked at Gardena’s Carroll Speedway, which he would enter by climbing the fence. His lasting impression is of Troy Ruttman driving a Track Roadster. “He started at the back in the main event and won the race. And he became my hero.”
When ‘Parnellie’ Jones began dirt-tracking a ’34 Ford ‘Jalopy’, people called him ‘The Wild Man.’ In the context of place and time, that was not necessarily bad. Wild Man drew fans and made friends who liked to help the untrained but obviously talented youngster. Still, Parnelli says, many of his early races ended in disaster because he was over-driving, trying to make up for the mediocre engine he’d assembled himself. When that finally blew up, an admirer built him a good one. And he started winning.
Socially, Jalopies were the very bottom of racing in those days, but the experience Parnelli gained in them was priceless. “I used to run about three times a week during the summer, and once a week all year long. We used to have as many as 200 cars show up on Sunday afternoon. But they only took 16 cars for the feature. I went one whole year and I don’t remember missing the main event. Of course pain has no memory so I could’ve!
“Some of these races started almost like they finished. It’d be like a chain. The only way you could get by was boogering somebody, give ’em a little tap in the rear.
“The competition was so keen that when I went into other types of racing, it wasn’t that keen.’
Anything, any time, anywhere…
Midgets, modifieds, sprint cars, stock cars – up-and-coming Parnelli Jones was getting offers from all sides, and eagerly driving anything on wheels, anywhere across the country. “I loved racing. I built it up to runnin’ like 65, 70 races a year. You get so fine-tuned it’s like driving a car to the store.”
Perhaps he was just a little too versatile. “One reason I didn’t win more championships is I was jumping around all the time,” he explains. “I’m the kind of guy who likes to see what’s on the other side of the hill.”
He did win championships, two in sprinters and another in USAC stockers, and dominated dozens of individual events. More importantly, he was learning all the time. He remembers a trio of 500-mile races at the then-new Riverside road course, in three different kinds of car, Midgets, modifieds and stock cars, all over one weekend. “We ran the first two going the opposite way, then Sunday we went the regular direction. So I said I knew Riverside forwards and backwards.”
Another thing he learned was to take care of his money. To this day Parnelli is grateful to his boyhood hero, 1952 Indy 500 winner Troy Ruttman, for counseling wise investment of his growing winnings. He followed instructions, building his fortune in tyre and vehicle dealerships, and also in property development, usually in partnership with close friend Vel Miletich.
It was another friend, trash mogul JC ‘Aggie’ Agajanian, Ruttman’s Indy entrant in 1952, who brought Parnelli to the Speedway in 1961. That, of course, was the year Jack Brabham and Cooper launched the rear-engine revolution there. Jones qualified fifth-fastest (eight spots ahead of ‘Black Jack’) in an Offy-powered Watson, led a total of 27 laps, and despite a late accident and a twelfth-place finish, was named joint rookie of the year with Bobby Marshman.
In his second year in Indiana, Jones started from pole, the first driver ever to qualify at over 150mph. He was on course to win, until a leaking brake line dropped him to seventh.
But in 1963 Rufus Parnell Jones again took pole and this time made it stick, keeping the big, burly Roadster he called Ol’ Calhoun and its infamously dribbling oil tank ahead of Jim Clark’s fleet little Lotus. (‘That’s why we call him ‘Parn-oily,’ quips Dan Gurney, Clark’s team-mate in that race.)
Agajanian and Jones tried one more time with the Roadster in 1964, the year Clark put a new Lotus on pole, three spots and 3.7mph faster than Ol’ Calhoun. Neither car finished that race, but Parnelli was now a mid-engine convert and soon found his way into Clark’s car. He won both pole and the race on the Milwaukee Mile. Then he won again in another Lotus at Trenton.
That’s when Colin Chapman invited the American to Formula 1, to be Clark’s team-mate. Parnelli was sorely tempted, but says: “He was always going to be Chapman’s number one. I didn’t think I was number two to anybody.”
Besides, he adds with a wry grin: “We always said that when something on a Lotus broke, Chapman said make everything else lighter.”
In the 1965 race Jones drove a modified Lotus and came second to Clark. For 1966 Parnelli and Aggie manufactured their own car, the Shrike, but it didn’t do the job. Jones himself felt it was time to step out of open cockpits.
Then Andy Granatelli – the flamboyant owner of the notorious Novis – made an offer. He had a new car, still four-wheel drive, but jet-powered. It would be the most powerful, revolutionary car in Indy history, he raved, and Jones was just the man to tame it.
“I had mixed emotions: I was thinking about quitting. But money is the great motivator. I talked to myself, ‘Would you drive it for $25,000? No. Would you do it for $50,000? No. Well, would you do it for $100,000? Well, probably I would.’
“So that’s how much I told Andy I wanted. I think he must’ve lost 50lbs.”
Parnelli had enormous fun that month of May with Granatelli’s ‘Whooshmobile’. “Honest to God, I had no idea that it was going to be that good. But it handled halfway decent, being 4WD, and the more I drove it, the better I got a feel of the turbine.
“It had a two- or three-second throttle delay time, and when you got off the throttle it was like the throttle was stuck. And turbines – they have the greatest torque at the beginning, tremendous torque. So this thing would accelerate, and across the short chutes it was perfect. But halfway down the straightaways it would fall on its face.
“So these other guys assumed I was backing off. I had no reason to. Shit, if I coulda run 300mph I woulda done. But everybody started accusing me of sandbagging; sending me sandbags in the mail and saying that fumes coming out of the top of the engine were distorting their vision…
“I’m just having the ball of my life, kidding all these guys. ‘How fast you gonna run in the race? I want to know where to set the screw.’ I was agitating ’em. They probably hated me, now that I look back on it.”
Parnelli vows he did not reign the beast in during qualifying, even though his sixth starting spot was his worst in his seven years at Indy. But that was precisely the right spot to start, outside of row two. At the green he used the enormous torque powering all four wheels to simply drive around others on the outside of the first turn, up in the grey. He was leading the race halfway through lap one.
History knows what happened, how a failed transmission bearing spoilt the fairy tale just a few miles from the finish. Parnelli blames himself, at least in part. “I was dominating the race. I had no reason in the world to hustle it out of the pits that hard. I look back and think, gee, how stupid I was.”
But he also reckons that an overnight rain delay, which put a few extra warm-up laps on the car the next day, worked against him too. But maybe missing that victory in such a manner made Parnelli Jones more famous than ever.
Tyred and emotional
Parnelli retired from Indianapolis, but not from racing. A long-time Ford man, he was soon recruited to drive Mustangs in the increasingly competitive Trans-Am series.
“We had no power steering. You had to be physically in pretty good shape to run the Trans-Am races as hard as we did. I enjoyed it until they started puttin’ pressure on me.
“We should have won the championship in ’69, but Firestone let us down. The tyres were good for a lap, then they’d drop by two seconds. It’d happen at Indy, too.”
It all came right in 1970, when Parnelli won five races to give Ford (and Firestone) the manufacturer’s title by one point over Mark Donohue’s Penske AMC Javelin.
Heading down Mexico way
“The reason I liked Baja racing? Because I was doing it for me: no pressure from sponsors. It was a recreational thing, a real adventurous thing. Going to Mexico in those days was like turning back the clock. And the Mexican people were so nice, they would invite you into their home and then fix you a lobster taco…”
He relished the challenge, too, the hours upon hours of pounding through the wilderness, sometimes deep into the night, fighting fatigue and the hallucinations it can bring.
His regular co-pilot was Bill Stroppe, who built the vehicles. For Jones personally, Stroppe played an even more important role: “I needed somebody to slow me down”.
In Baja, Parnelli won two 500-mile events plus two of the gruelling 1000s. He also took a 400 in Nevada.
Winning Indy from the other side
Even before he started racing Parnelli had been working on cars, and with help from friends he built several of his own. “I’m kind of a self-educated engineer,” he says. “I studied suspensions, and I used to set up other guys’ cars for them, like my brother Paul. I’d go down to the corner and watch how they drove, and by mimicking what they were doing with my own hands I could tell ’em how to set the car.”
So after he retired from driving at Indy, it was perfectly natural to stay involved by building Parnelli cars. He and Vel Miletich formed Vel’s Parnelli Jones in 1969. In 1970 they won the 500. In ’71 they did it again.
Parnelli has kept both the winning Lolas, but calls the ’70 car ‘my favorite’, and grins. “Winning as an owner isn’t as good as winning as a driver, but it’s almost as good.”
His driver both times was Al Unser, younger brother of ’68 winner Bobby, who would go on to a so-far unequalled four Indy victories. Parnelli Jones thinks a lot of Al Unser. “Mario Andretti, he’s probably more like I was. He’s aggressive, he’s hard on equipment. And Bobby too, a little bit. But Al Unser, man, he knew how to win. He was a car owner’s dream.
“In 1970, when we won Indianapolis, he led, I think, 191 of the 200 laps, and that car didn’t have a drop of oil coming out of it. Then he came back next year and won again, and then won the championship…”
Won the 1971 USAC national championship, it must be said, in an exhibition of virtuosity to rival that of his employer, showing calm mastery of speedways, road courses and dirt ovals.
VPJ took a flier into Formula 1 in 1975, after a toe in the water entry at the end of the previous season. Parnelli says it was Mario who forced that to happen, getting Firestone to put up a million dollars to design, build and campaign an American car. It was the same year that Penske and Donohue were doing the same under Goodyear.
But the two tyre giants were at loggerheads in NASCAR, and Jones claims that Firestone felt so mistreated that it shut down all of its racing programs.
“Vel and I were hung out financially building those cars. If we’d stopped we could have put a million dollars in our pocket, but we didn’t.”
The team raced throughout 1975 (Andretti finishing 14th in the championship with five points to his tally), and carried on into the first part of ’76, trying to attract backing. Parnelli points out that the Maurice Philippe-designed, California-made VPJ4 was beautifully constructed, and Andretti was getting more from the car. But sponsors weren’t appearing and it was all over by the third round.
Andretti still expresses bitterness at the way he learned the team was going to fold – he was strapped into the car on the grid at Long Beach when journalist Chris Economaki told him – and Jones admits he has a right to feel that way. ‘But we couldn’t tell Mario, because when you’re looking for sponsorship you don’t tell people you’re going to quit.’
Famous, fortunate and blessed with innumerable lifetime friends, Rufus Parnelli Jones is fully aware that he enjoyed a unique time in racing, and enjoyed it to the fullest. “I’ve had a great life.”