Now that the May issue of Motor Sport is out, celebrating the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 100th anniversary, I thought I’d take the chance to write about some of the Indy 500’s greatest drivers. Over the next two months I’ll occasionally blog about past superstars who dominated the great race for brief periods of time. I begin this week with Bill Vukovich and Parnelli Jones.
Vukovich started five Indianapolis 500s and won the race twice, in 1953 and ’54, driving a series of Harold Keck’s beautiful Kurtis 500-Offenhausers. Bill dominated the event for four years from 1952-55, but in the ‘52 race he was leading with just 10 laps to go when his steering failed, and he was killed in ‘55 while leading comfortably yet again – an innocent victim of a multi-car accident. In total, Vukovich led 485 of the 676 laps he completed at the Speedway over five races from 1951-55.
Jones won the 500 just once, in 1963, but led five of the seven 500s he started for a total of 492 laps – and never qualified below the first two rows. Parnelli retired from open-cockpit racing after almost winning the 500 a second time in 1967 aboard Andy Granatelli’s STP turbine car, and went on to win the 1970 Trans-Am championship and the Baja 1000 off-road race in 1971-72. The likes of Mario Andretti and Bobby and Al Unser say Parnelli was the best driver they’ve ever seen at Indy, and Colin Chapman famously offered Jones a Formula 1 ride beside Jim Clark. Jones turned Chapman down declaring, “I’m not number two to anybody, Jim Clark included.”
Both Vukovich and Jones were from California, a rural paradise in those days, and they came up through the ranks the hard way about a decade apart. Vukovich started racing in 1938, winning the West Coast Midget championship in 1946-47. Once he finally made it to Indy or Championship cars Vukovich stuck to them, running only at Indianapolis during his final years and building a fearsome reputation as the man to beat at the Speedway.
Parnelli started racing in the early ‘50s at the Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino aboard jalopy stock cars. In 1961-62 he won the IMCA and USAC sprint car titles before going on to success at Indy the following year. That was the race where Parnelli beat Jim Clark in the rear-engined Lotus-Ford’s Indy debut, when there was some wrangling that Jones should have been black-flagged for an oil leak. Parnelli (below) also led the 1964 500, battling with A J Foyt before he was stopped by a pit fire, and then finished second to Clark in ‘65. He dominated with the turbine car in ‘67 before dropping out when a driveshaft bearing broke with just three laps to go.
Vukovich and Jones raced through the height of the great ‘roadster’ era with most of the cars powered by the venerable four-cylinder Offenhauser engine. Frank Kurtis, builder of Vukovich’s cars, was a dominant force at Indianapolis through most of the ‘50s with his svelte torsion bar-suspended cars, but late in that decade and into the early ‘60s he was superseded by more effective roadsters built by George Salih, A J Watson, Quin Epperly, Floyd Trevis, Eddie Kuzma and others. The classic Watson roadster Jones raced from 1961-64 was owned by west coast race promoter J C Agajanian and known as ‘Calhoun’.
Without doubt Vukovich and Jones are among the greatest drivers to race and win at Indianapolis. Over the next two months I’ll write about a few more of the true greats from the Speedway’s epic 100-year history.