When Colin Chapman took his little Lotus 29s to Indianapolis in 1963, the good ol’ boys took exception – especially one Parnelli Jones. Shaun Campbell looks back at his astonishing pole lap
The first day of qualifying at Indianapolis is always a huge occasion, but there was an extra frisson of anticipation running through Gasoline Alley in May 1963. The spectators and there were 220,000 of them for the first day’s runs were aware of it, too. Something out of the ordinary was about to happen.
As far as the American lndycar regulars were concerned, though, it already had. Just the appearance in the pitlane of a car with a Ford engine in the rear, rather than an Offy in the front, was surprising enough. It wasn’t the first time a mid-engined car had tried to mix it up with the frontengined roadsters at Indianapolis, but it was the first time that the attempt had to be taken seriously. For this car was built by Lotus, rapidly emerging as the dominant force in European motorsport, and it would be driven by two of the finest road racers in the world, Jim Clark and Dan Gurney.
There was nothing gracious, or indeed particularly sportsmanlike, about the way the Indycar establishment reacted to the ‘funny can’ as they called the new wave of British challengers. When Jack Brabham brought a Cooper-Climax to the Brickyard in 1961, Aj Foyt, who won the 500 for the first time that year, said it looked like “a bunch of pipes lashed up with chicken wire,” adding, “I wouldn’t drive one of them no matter what.” Brabham’s Cooper, giving away 1.5 litres capacity and more than 100bhp to the USAC roadsters, wasn’t a huge threat, but the potential of the midengine layout was revealed in the little car’s cornering speeds.
The arrival of the Lotus-Ford 29 two years later was the cue for more outspoken criticism, which ranged from its use of petrol rather than methanol to the green paintwork of Clark’s car. Green was considered an unlucky colour at Indianapolis, but when an American official told Lotus boss Colin Chapman: “Our drivers don’t feel good passing a green car,” the only reply he got was a blithe: “I’m hoping they won’t get the chance.”
Pre-qualifying practice had suggested that Chapman had plenty of justification for his confidence. His cars had been lapping the 2.4-mile oval in 59 seconds, averaging around 153mph. A similar performance when the time came for the grid to be decided could well result in the funny cars dominating the front row.
Nobody was more determined to prevent the European dog from cocking its leg in Gasoline Alley than Pamelli Jones. He was 29 years of age then, a tough individual born into a poor Arkansas family that had drifted west to California during the dark days of the Depression. This would be only his third start in the Indy 500, but already he had made his mark on the Speedway. In 1961, his rookie year, he had started from the second row of the grid and led for 75 miles despite the handicap of blood filling the left eyepiece of his goggles after a piece of flying metal cut his forehead. It wasn’t until the Offy engine of his Watson-built roadster went off song that Jones conceded the lead, although he battled all the way to the end to finish 12th. In 1962 he qualified on pole, with the first 150mph-plus run for the flying four laps, and led the race until brake problems intervened. Jones’ car in 1963 was the game Watson-Offy roadster he’d raced in 1961 and 1962. Known as ‘Ol’ Calhoun’, it was sponsored and entered hyJ C Agajanian, a pig farmer and garbage collector who had been running cars at the Speedway since 1948 but was still looking for his first win. ‘Ol’ Calhoun’ was a state of the art USAC roadster, which still meant that it weighed in at 1500lbs against the Lotus’s 1150lbs and looked as big as a bus by comparison.
High winds were gusting over the track when qualifying started and speeds were down; few cars were managing more than 150mph. Windspeeds of above 35mph were being recorded when Jones fired up ‘Ol’ Calhoun’ and set off. The target to beat was 150.188mph, set by veteran Don Branson, also driving a Watson-Offy. Clark and Gurney had yet to run. Jones had developed a special technique for qualifying at the Speedway, a style that he kept to himself and never used when somebody was running close enough to see what he was up to. Coming into a corner, he tapped the brakes and threw the car into a slide. It was done at high enough speed to force the outer edge of the outside rear tyres to tuck under. The moment the car stopped sliding, the tyre popped back up, fully erect, slingshotting ‘Ol’ Colhoun’ down the straight. Jones reckoned it gave him another two or three miles per hour. But if it was fast, it was also risky, if the front wheels weren’t pointed straight down the road when he floored the throttle, the popped-up tyre would catapult the car into a slide in the opposite direction and straight into the wall at 140mph. It had happened to other drivers, who had inadvertently created the same effect. Right from the beginning of that run it was clear that Jones was right on the ragged edge, the high winds snatching at the front end of the car. Not once did he let up, though and the crowds in the grandstand responded to what they could see was a huge effort of guts and will. His fastest lap was 151.847mph, his four-lap average was 151.153mph. Veteran trackside commentator Torn Carnegie yelled into his microphone: “A new track record”, and Jones, the adrenaline subsiding, cruised slowly into the pits.
Neither Clark nor Gurney could do anything about it. Gurney badly damaged one chassis trying and dropped to 13th on the grid. Clark averaged 149.750mph to take fifth spot. Asked for his reaction afterwards, Jones said: ‘The last thing in the world I was going to see happen was one of them goddam funny cars take the pole.” He had been as good his word.
Jones won the race somewhat controversially because ‘Ol’ Calhoun’ had been leaking oil in the closing stages, normally an instant case for a black flag. Clark was second, a victim of some sharp practice by the USAC establishment. But when American driver Eddie Sachs, who had crashed out on the spilt oil, raised the issue with Jones, the only reply he got was a punch in the face. It wasn’t gracious, it wasn’t very sportsmanlike. But the way Jones drove that car, especially in qualifying, had earned him the right.