The real Indiana Jones
His stellar performances at Indianapolis form only part of the Parnelli Jones story
By Gordon Kirby
If anyone defines the American racing driver of the 1960s it’s Parnelli Jones. He stands at the pinnacle of the US pantheon with A?J?Foyt, Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney – living legends from one of the sport’s great eras. Rufus Parnelli Jones was a tough, crew-cut hombre with chiselled features and an eagle-eyed stare. He made his mark winning in midget and sprint cars before establishing himself as perhaps the fastest of all the great drivers who tackled the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the ’60s.
Jones dominated three of the seven Indy 500s he started and won the race in 1963, beating Jim Clark. He was almost a clear winner again in 1967 in Andy Granatelli’s STP turbine car, but a driveshaft bearing broke and after the race, at the height of his prowess, Parnelli retired from racing open-cockpit cars.
He continued to race in Can-Am, Trans-Am and off-road cars and trucks, winning the 1970 Trans-Am title from Mark Donohue and Penske Racing at a time when it was one of the USA’s top series. He also won the Baja 1000 off-road race in 1971-72. The likes of Andretti and Bobby and Al Unser rated him as the best driver they’d seen at Indianapolis – Jones qualified on the first two rows for all seven 500s he started and led five of those for a total of 492 laps.
Then there was his career as a team owner in partnership with Vel Miletich. Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing won at Indy with Al Unser in 1970-71, and took three consecutive USAC titles with Unser and Joe Leonard in 1970-72. VPJ produced the first Cosworth-powered Indycar and a Formula 1 car raced by Andretti from 1974-76. VPJ’s cars were usually beautiful and often revolutionary.
VPJ also built and developed a series of Ford and Chevrolet off-road trucks for Parnelli to race while he expanded his business interests with Miletich, becoming a successful Firestone tyre distributor and a property developer in southern California. Today, at 75, Parnelli remains as sharp as ever, full of ideas and quiet, firm opinions. He knows as much about racing as anyone and remains energetic and fit, easily able to recall details from 50 years ago as if they happened yesterday.
Parnelli started life as a professional racing driver in the mid-50s, driving jalopy stock cars at the quarter-mile Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino, an hour’s drive east of downtown LA. In 1956-57 he was almost unbeatable at the speedway and believes the competition he faced led to his reputation of being an aggressive driver. Constraining his fierce, natural aggression would remain the biggest challenge of his racing career.
“I’ve never had any patience,” he admits. “I remember telling my wife that I could win this race, it was just a matter of holding it together and taking it easy. I got in the car and pretty soon I was trying to put a lap on the field. It was just that instinct I couldn’t seem to overcome.”
During this time Jones started racing NASCAR-type stock cars and met Miletich. Parnelli drove a variety of stock cars but secured a regular ride in a car owned by Ford dealer Oscar Maples and Miletich. Driving for them he won three NASCAR Grand National dirt track races between 1957-59.
In 1959, Jim Hurtubise convinced Parnelli to tackle USAC sprint car racing. The pair were friendly rivals and Parnelli showed his stuff by winning back-to-back titles in 1961-62. Hurtubise made his rookie start at Indianapolis in 1960, a year ahead of Jones. He was a talented, happy-go-lucky guy whose promising career was sidetracked when he was badly burned in a fiery accident at Milwaukee in 1964. Nicknamed ‘Hercules’, he set a new qualifying record as an Indy rookie. “After Hurtubise ran that 149mph lap he said, ‘That ain’t nothing. Wait ’til Parnelli gets here.’ I was in the pits with him and that was a big pump for me.”
Parnelli made his 500 debut driving a Watson-Offy roadster for California car owner and Ascot race promoter J?C?Agajanian. He qualified fifth and led for 27 laps before a spark plug fouled and his engine lost a cylinder.
In 1962 Jones qualified Agajanian’s Watson-Offy on pole, becoming the first man to break the 150mph or one-minute barrier around the speedway. Parnelli ran away with the race, leading for 127 laps until an exhaust header cracked resulting in damage to a brake line. Without any brakes for the last third of the race he made it home in seventh place.
The next year Parnelli dominated again, setting another track record in qualifying and leading 167 laps to finally win. Jim Clark finished second in the Lotus team’s first 500, and the closing stages were fraught with controversy as Agajanian and chief mechanic Johnny Poulsen argued with chief steward Harlan Fengler and Colin Chapman to prevent Fengler from black-flagging Jones, whose car was leaking oil.
“I dominated that race. Nobody could run with me,” Parnelli recalls. “I had no problems except for the oil tank. Every year Poulsen would try to make the car better and he changed the cowling, made it a little more aerodynamic and put the air intake on the front. He also built a lighter, more streamlined tank made of aluminium instead of steel. All these things helped to make the car quicker.”
But midway through the 500 Parnelli’s lightweight oil tank cracked. “It suddenly spurted oil onto my left-rear tyre, and man, I almost spun! I didn’t know what was going on. For two or three laps it was real critical, and then it was fine. The only time I saw any indication [of a problem] was when I backed off at the end of the straightaway and there would be a little puff.”
Parnelli ran one of his quickest race laps on the penultimate lap, and insists the track was slick for much of the race with oil from Andy Granatelli’s Novi and the Vita Fresh Orange Juice Special.
There was no radio communication in those days, and Jones didn’t know he was in danger of being black-flagged. “It kind of put a blemish on my win but it felt great when I crossed the line. Winning Indianapolis was my goal. It was the race. It set you apart.
“I pulled into victory circle and enjoyed my win and then started hearing all these stories. I went to bed, woke up and went in the bathroom and looked in the mirror to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. It was a big thrill.”
The rear-engine revolution was coming fast at Indianapolis in 1964 when Clark qualified his Lotus 34 on pole and Bobby Marshman was second in a Lotus 29. The start of that year’s 500 was marred by a fiery, multi-car accident in which Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald both died. After a long delay the race got going but it wasn’t long before Clark ran into tyre trouble and Marshman got too low in the first turn, knocking out his transmission drain plug and losing oil. That left Jones and Foyt to decide who would score the final Indy win for a front-engined car.
“In ’64, we should’ve won again,” says Jones. “We built a new aluminium fuel tank but that was a big mistake because it wasn’t strong enough. I could run all over AJ. It wasn’t even a contest. But at the end of the straightaway my car wasn’t picking up fuel so Foyt would drive by me. Everybody thought we were having a hell of a race, but my car was quitting on me. Finally, I came in the pits and it caught fire while they were fuelling me.”
Parnelli bailed out, escaping with second- and third-degree burns to his left arm and legs. That was the last time Jones raced Agajanian’s Watson-Offy roadster, known as ‘Calhoun’. Later that year, at Ford’s request, he drove a rear-engined Lotus at Milwaukee and Trenton, winning both races.
“The Lotus was easy to drive. It was like a big go-kart compared to the roadster. The Lotuses were quite a bit lighter and so nimble. That’s why they were quick. It was also probably the most dangerous car I ever drove, not just because it was light but [because of] the way it was built. You were sitting by the fuel tank and running on gasoline, too. It was scary.
“We kept breaking uprights and other pieces. It scared both Foyt [in the other car] and me. Chapman was a great engineer, really creative, but we always said his philosophy was, if something breaks make the rest of it lighter!”
At Trenton, driving the Lotus that Dan Gurney had raced at Indianapolis, Jones beat Clark fair and square. “That’s when Chapman wanted me to do F1, but he wanted me to be number two to Jimmy and I didn’t feel at that time I was number two to anybody. I also felt F1 didn’t carry the prestige it does today. They seemed to be gentlemen racers. And the F1 cars were those little 1.5-litre cars that didn’t really appeal. I felt I’d have to spend a year learning the circuits and things of that sort.”
Jones and Foyt raced a pair of Lotus 34s bequeathed to them by Ford in 1965. Both cars were substantially rebuilt, Foyt’s by George Bignotti and Parnelli’s by renowned roadster builder Eddie Kuzma. But they still proved fragile and Parnelli suffered two suspension failures during practice at Indianapolis, crashing heavily. He was knocked unconscious in the second accident and started the race in the rebuilt car without any serious running. In the end he and car owner Agajanian were delighted to finish the 500 a distant second to Clark, as Jimmy scored the first rear-engined win at Indy in his newer Lotus 38.
With Clark absent from Milwaukee the following weekend, Parnelli scored a clear win in his Kuzma/Lotus, which he raced sporadically for the rest of the year. But he and Agajanian’s team were already at work designing and building their own rear-engined car for 1966, called a Shrike. He qualified fourth at Indianapolis that year and ran well before a wheel-bearing failed. He also led the USAC season-closer at Phoenix until the engine blew.
Parnelli’s fortunes took a turn for the better when he raced Granatelli’s STP turbine car at Indy in 1967. A turbine has very different power characteristics from a conventional piston engine and the car also boasted four-wheel drive, so it was an animal quite unlike anything Parnelli had experienced. It took Jones and the team a while to figure out the best gearing and 4WD split to achieve the optimum lap time. Meanwhile Parnelli says his competitors fooled themselves with their qualifying set-ups.
“I didn’t know the car was going to be that good. Foyt, Gurney and Mario were all running 15 per cent nitro in qualifying as well as light fuel loads. Remember, this was when we were carrying 75 gallons of fuel. Nobody wanted to give the car any credit for its handling. It was a four-wheel-drive car and we’d worked out the chassis. I figured on race day when those guys put on 75 gallons of fuel and took out that nitro they might not have enough speed to go by me. I knew how much those cars slowed when you put on the fuel and took the nitro mixture out.”
At the start Parnelli brazenly drove around the outside of the three front-row cars and whistled away into the distance. “We got the gear we needed to run the fastest elapsed time and I just stuck that sucker right up in the grey and went around the outside. I figured I was going to show them how good this thing handles. Coming out the corner I went around Mario and he gave me the finger, but I was long gone.
“No question I could have finished that race if I had any patience. Early on I was storming out the pits. I even pulled a fuel hose off – stupid things like that. I could have sat there for another 15 or 20 seconds and eased it out. Towards the end I came up behind Foyt to lap him. He was running second and I was thinking, ‘Okay, just sit here.’ That was hard for me to do.”
But four laps from the end the turbine lost drive and Foyt came through from almost a lap down to win his third 500. “It was heartbreaking to be that dominant and not win,” says Parnelli. “It helped me make a decision. Towards the end of the race I was thinking that winning again wasn’t going to be as great as it was the first time.
“My business was taking off and I had my children and it kinda changed my life. I quit running open-cockpit cars. That’s all I said I was doing. I didn’t quit driving.”
Trans-Am evolved rapidly from 1967-71 with factory-backed teams from Ford, Chevrolet, Plymouth, Dodge and American Motors. In 1969 and ’70, Parnelli was teamed with George Follmer in a pair of Bud Moore Ford Mustangs. He finished second to Mark Donohue’s Penske Chevy Camaro in the ’69 championship and then beat his rival to the title in 1970 by just one point, winning five races to Donohue’s three.
During this time Parnelli tackled off-road racing with equal vigour. He was cajoled into the sport by Bill Stroppe, who built Ford’s off-road racing trucks. Parnelli won the Baja 1000 in 1971-72 and broke the race record by more than an hour. Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing was also in full bloom. The team came to life early in ’69 when Parnelli and Miletich bought Bignotti’s team, with Al Unser driving a Lola-Ford. Unser blew everyone away in 1970, winning the Indy 500 aboard VPJ’s Colt – based on the previous year’s Lola – and claiming a further 10 victories. For a while VPJ’s three-car operation for Unser, Leonard and Andretti was known as the ‘Super Team’.
“At one time we were running Indycars, F1, Formula 5000, off-road and drag racing. We got a taste of drag racing because Firestone wanted us to build a dragster and a Funny car, which we did for Danny Ongais.”
Parnelli got fed up with the increasingly poor reliability of the big-boost, turbocharged Offenhauser engine in the mid-70s and decided to build and develop the turbo Cosworth DFX engine. John Barnard was hired to develop a car based on the Parnelli F1 that Andretti was racing at the time. Al Unser scored the first win for a Cosworth-powered Indycar at Phoenix in 1976, and over the next two years the V8 pushed the venerable four-cylinder Offenhauser out of Indycar racing.
VPJ’s run as a team and car builder came to an end after Firestone pulled out of racing in 1976. The team kept going for a few years, supplying cars to Ted Field’s Interscope team for Ongais, but it had left the Indycar business by the time CART started in 1979. “Firestone was a big part of our subsidy and when they got out, even though we had sponsor money, it wasn’t enough,” says Parnelli. “We never had more money in sponsorship than we spent. In a lot of cases, it was the other way around. After Firestone got out we never could recoup what we were spending and it was the same in F1.”
Parnelli believes he raced in an epic period, but that it pales in comparison to the sport’s early days. “I raced in the best of times,” he reflects. “The days before me, those guys were crazy – the equipment, the way they drove in T-shirts with bad helmets and steering wheels so big you could hardly reach around them. And to think about the riding mechanics… Those guys were men. We were just boys.”
Parnelli Jones was one of the fastest, toughest, most accomplished drivers from a deadly era. He not only survived but retired at the height of his powers and led a successful, happy life beyond racing. Today, he’s a fulfilled family man who has a keen perspective on where he fits in the sport’s history. A proper hero.