Agood pedigree is one thing. Allround experience is another, and outstanding management is the third ingredient launching PJ Jones to stardom in America. At the age of 23, Parnell Velco Jones (“just PJ, please”) has already tucked away 10 years of competition in karts, midgets, sprint cars, Indy Lights, Firestone Firehawks, IMSA GTU/GTO and GTP categories, a classical background for an up-and-coming American driver.
PJ came of age last year when Dan Gurney hired him to join Juan-Manuel Fangio II in the All-American Racers Toyota Eagle team. The youngster wouldn’t have stood a chance of getting into a European team (“too young, too inexperienced, the sponsors want a name”) but Gurney recognises talent when he sees it, and insisted that PJ was his man.
There were echoes in his mind, no doubt, of some memorable battles with PJ’ s father, Parnelli Jones. “His heritage crossed my mind,” Gurney admits. “PJ has a great deal of talent and natural ability. Also he is a great communicator.”
PJ made an erratic start to the season, spinning good results away through sheer exuberance and inexperience, but Gurney was a calming influence. “I told him we believed in him and he didn’t need to show us how blindingly fast he could be,” said the mentor, and by mid-season PJ matured.
Third at New Orleans, second at Laguna Seca, outright winner at Portland, where he narrowly beat team-mate Fangio and delayed his bid to wrap up the IMSA Camel GT Championship. Had this been F1 the eruption from his senior would have reverberated around the world. . .
“Juan took it well,” says PJ. “It was no problem at all. He’s a great team-mate, you couldn’t ask for a better one. We share our information, we run close together, and really, we never have any problems.”
PJ capped the season with a brilliant victory at Del Mar, moving to fourth place in the championship just one point behind four-times champion Geoff Brabham. For that he earned the Most Improved Driver Award, justified anew at the end of January when he snatched a breathtaking pole position at Daytona and then won the 24-hour classic outright.
It was Jones who showed maturity that weekend. One of his older co-drivers planted the Toyota in the weeds and nearly eliminated the car! “It’s like going to Vegas and rolling a seven,” remarked PJ from Victory Lane.
Lest anyone underrates the 890 kg Toyota, it has an extremely advanced Eagle chassis and regularly turns in times as good as, or better than, lndycars where comparisons are possible. In qualifying trim at Daytona, the 2.1-litre, four-cylinder engine was reckoned to be producing 1,000 bhp.. . or more.
“It feels like a single-seater,” PJ reckons. “It doesn’t feel heavy or unresponsive compared with Indy Lights, and those carbon brakes. . when you stand on the brakes it spits you right out of the seat, like pinching a water melon seed!”
The name of Parnelli Jones has been famous since he won the Indianapolis 500 in 1963, and became legendary with three USAC sprint car championships, and titles in USAC stock cars (1964) and SCCA Trans-Am (1970). He ended his career in 1988 by sharing a Mazda GTO at Daytona with PJ, then 17 and just issued with a licence, and John Morton.
“We’re a close family,” says PJ. “I live at home, I take advice from my pa, listen to what he has to say. Then I go to Dan and take advice from him, so I reckon my upbringing is in good hands.”
PJ’s first loyalty and commitment is to Toyota, and he has already laid his bid to the IMSA title by scoring a maximum 28 points at Daytona. Extending his groundwork, though, he will drive a Melling Racing entry in at least five non-conflicting Winston Cup races, starting at Atlanta. Melling runs Fords, but for contractual reasons Jones isn’t allowed to let the name pass his lips!
He impressed the regulars by lapping Daytona at 187 mph first time out, but is commendably modest. “The fastest was 190 but they’re so tightly bunched together that 187 is midfield. I’m just doing this for experience. Ernie Elliott put the deal together, he runs the team and it gives me the chance to see if I want to drive these cars.”
Comparisons with the Toyota? PJ chuckles. “I wasn’t driving the stock car to its limits, and it’s very different driving on your own to having 10 cars stacked up behind you! It has power steering and feels much heavier than the Toyota, though you don’t notice so much on the oval.
“The big difference is the brakes. With a NASCAR you start planning for the pits around Turn 3. With the GTP you drive straight into the pit lane, it’s wide open, and start to brake 10 pits from home!”
Jones professes to having no ambitions outside lndycars and stock cars, “what any serious racer does over here”, and is only mildly interested in Formula 1. “It would be interesting if the right opportunity came along,” is as far as he’ll go on that subject. Ovals and road circuits he enjoys equally, “I love ’em all.”
No-one really doubts that Toyota will join Honda and Nissan in Indycar racing, and PJ Jones would be joint favourite with Fangio II to occupy the seats. Jones is completely non-committal on the subject (“I’m just part of the team, that’s really not my decision”) but there is no more obvious candidate to snap at the heels of Al Unser Jr and Michael Andretti in years to come.
The Jones family lives in Rolling Hills, California, and PJ leads a life that would be the envy of a 23 year-old anywhere. He flies his own Beech Baron aircraft and for hobbies goes boating, water skiing, golfing, motorcycle riding and snowmobiling.
Between times he helps his younger brother, Page, who is duplicating Pfs career and won the Skip Barber Saab race at Del Mar last October, the same day that PJ won the GTP event.
Needless to say, Parnelli was the proudest father in California that day. “I give PJ hints and he does it exactly as I would have,” says pa. “He is a clone of me.” That is a good recommendation for a young man, not yet 24 but already booking his place in the hall of fame.
M L C
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