The car that led Mario Andretti to his F1 title — and should have won GPs: Parnelli VPJ-4

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The Parnelli VPJ-4 is one of F1's great coulda-woulda-shoulda stories, writes Preston Lerner. Without it, Mario Andretti would not have won the title with Lotus in 1978

Mario Andretti in the VPJ-4 qt the 1976 Spanish Grand Prix

Monjuïch Park was the highlight of '75 for Andretti and the VPJ-4

Grand Prix Photo

I recently did a double take when I heard that “the personal collection of Parnelli Jones” was headed to the block at the Mecum Auction in Indianapolis next month. Really? All the goodies that the 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner and longtime car owner had hoarded over the years?

Twenty-five years ago, I spent a day rooting around the private museum Jones and his partner, Vel Miletich, maintained on the mezzanine of their office in Torrance, California. At the time, the collection included 17 irreplaceable race cars. Among the most mesmerizing were the Lotus 34 Jones drove to two Champ Car victories; the bright-red STP turbine in which he came within three laps of winning Indy in 1967; Al Unser’s Johnny Lightning 1970 and ’71 Indy winners; a statuesque Grant King-built dirt Champ Car; one of Maurice Philippe’s strange-looking dihedral-wing Indy cars; even a Funny Car driven by the Flyin’ Hawaiian, Danny Ongais.

But when I spoke to Jim Dilamarter, Jones’s longtime right-hand man, I learned that all of these cars had already been sold to private collectors and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. Only three cars were left. One was a modern re-creation of Ol’ Calhoun, the Watson-Offy roadster that carried Jones to victory at Indy. The second was Big Oly, the tube-frame, fiberglass-bodied gloss on a Ford Bronco that Jones and co-driver Bill Stroppe flogged to win the Baja 1000 in 1971 and 1972. This, clearly, was the star of the auction. In fact, early buzz suggests that Big Oly might be the first off-road racer to bring more than $1 million.

Big Oly Parnelli Jones Baja

Big Oly the Parnelli Jones Baja racer

Mecum

But for me, at least, the keeper was the third car, a wedge-shaped formula car with a high airbox that screamed “mid 1970s.” Known as the Parnelli VPJ-4, this was one of three American cars that competed briefly on the Formula 1 circuit during the glory years of the Cosworth era. Unlike its rivals from Shadow and Penske, it never won a race. But it’s one of the great coulda-woulda-shoulda stories of its day.

In 1974, Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing was the motor sport stand-in for King Kong. Besides running the so-called Superteam of Mario Andretti, Al Unser and Joe Leonard in Indy cars, VPJ also competed in Formula 5000, drag racing, on dirt tracks and in off-road racing. “If we didn’t win three races in a weekend, we were disappointed,” Miletich joked a few years before his death in 1998.

Mario Andretti in Parnelli Jones Racing F5000 car in 1975

Andretti and VPJ had US F5000 success in 1974

Alvis Upitis/Getty Images

Andretti had already done a couple of one-off F1 drives for Lotus, qualifying on pole in his debut, and won the 1971 South African Grand Prix in a factory Ferrari. Now, even though he was committed to race in America, he was determined to make Formula 1 his priority. Firestone agreed to develop a new tire, and Viceroy and Castrol signed on as sponsors.

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Philippe designed a tidy, handsome car around a conventional Cosworth/Hewland drivetrain. The most unusual touches were inboard brakes and torsion bars rather than coil springs. Although the VPJ-4 was impeccably built, it was slower than the team’s F5000 car during testing at Riverside. “Maurice basically designed a three-year-old Lotus 72,” Andretti says.

Of course, the Lotus 72 was still winning races at the time. And the Parnelli showed promise early on. Andretti finished seventh in the car’s first race in Canada at the end of the 1974 season. Two weeks later, at Watkins Glen, he was quickest in first practice and qualified third before vapour lock prevented the car from starting. “Our car was superior at that time,” says Dilamarter, who managed the F1 team. “I guarantee you Mario would have won that race.”

And then, disaster. During the off-season, the sponsors bailed. Besides leaving the team short of financing, this meant that the VPJ-4 – which had been designed around the unique characteristic of bespoke tires – suddenly had to run on off-the-shelf Goodyears. Although the inboard brakes and torsion bars were junked over the course of the season in an effort to find pace, Andretti spent most races mired in mid-pack.

Mario Andretti in the VPJ-4 at the 1976 German Grand Prix

Goodyear-shod VPJ-4 — here at the Nürburgring in ’75 — never achieved its potential

Hoch Zwei/Ronco via Getty Images

The highlight of the 1975 season was the chaotic Spanish Grand Prix on a dangerously inadequate street circuit at Montjuïch. “I went through the field and passed James Hunt for the lead,” Andretti recalls. “And I’m leading with no problem when the radius rod in the left rear suspension pulls out.” (Possibly as a result of contact at the start.)

The VPJ-4’s best finish was a fourth at Sweden. But what Dilamarter remembers most vividly about the weekend is qualifying, where Andretti suffered a catastrophic brake failure. “We almost killed Mario,” he says. “The car was basically totalled, but Mario never made a big deal about it. He came back to the pits and got in the backup car without saying a word.”

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Andretti, for his part, remembers only the points finish, not the crash – which tells you something about the mindset of race drivers during the exceedingly dangerous 1970s.

The Parnelli misadventure ended unhappily at Long Beach in 1976. While Andretti was sitting on the grid after qualifying a disappointing 15th, TV reporter Chris Economaki stuck a microphone in his face and asked, “How do you feel about this being your last race in Formula 1?” This was news to Andretti. “I was so upset,” he says, “I almost forgot to put the car in gear.”

At breakfast the morning after the race, Andretti ran into Colin Chapman, who was despondent after one of his Lotuses failed to qualify and the other finished last. “We were commiserating with one another, and Colin says, ‘I wish I had a decent car for you to drive for me,’” Andretti recalls. “I said, ‘If you want me, I will drive for you, and we will make the car better.’”

Famous story, famous result. Andretti drove a Lotus 77 to victory in the last race of the season, won four more races the next year and earned the championship in 1978. But none of it would have happened without the Parnelli VPJ-4.