The First Favorite: Parnelli Jones
Kids are notoriously fickle when choosing their “favorite” sports heroes. I know I was. Growing up, my first favorite football team were the Los Angeles Rams – mainly because they had cool looking helmets and their starting quarterback, Roman Gabriel, had an even cooler sounding name. Over the next few years, my loyalties drifted to Bart Starr and Green Bay, then to Fran Tarkenton of Minnesota and then finally to Roger Staubach of Dallas – all in less than a ten year period.
I wasn’t near as fickle growing up when it came to my favorite IndyCar drivers. My all-time favorite was AJ Foyt. No one else even comes close. However, I did have one “favorite” before AJ Foyt occupied that role; and that was Parnelli Jones.
The first time I ever looked at an Indy 500 program was when my father and brothers returned from the 1964 race. At age five, I was deemed too young to go. When they brought home their program from the race, I studied it from cover to cover…well, about as much as five year-old is capable of. The first car I saw was the Firestone ad on the back cover featuring the 1963 winner: Rufus Parnell Jones.
It was there that I saw what is still one of my all-time favorite cars to ever race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; The Willard Battery Special, #98 – “Ol’ Calhoun”. The deep blue nose with stripes tapering back against the metallic pearl car was striking. It was further accented by the giant gold-leaf numbers on the rear of the car. The Offy-powered Watson roadster still sits in the Speedway museum and is probably the one that garners the most gawking from me every time I visit each May. I remember seeing it run prior to the 1992 race. It sounded glorious as it left the pit area, but it died shortly and had to be towed back in. It was not the way I wanted to remember my first Indy idol.
Parnelli Jones had a relatively short driving career at the Speedway. He arrived in 1961 as co-Rookie of the Year with Bobby Marshman. As a rookie, he qualified an impressive fifth and finished twelfth. He was running at the end, but was eight laps down. There was a multi-car crash during the race that injured no one – except Parnelli, that is. He had been struck in the face by some debris. The chunk cracked his goggles, which periodically would fill with blood as Jones persevered on.
The following year, Jones blistered the track record winning the pole position while becoming the first driver to qualify at over 150 mph at the Speedway. In an earlier practice, he almost lost the back-end of the car coming out of turn four. At the last minute, his reflexes saved him from drifting all the way into the wall. He then realized that he could carry more speed out of the turn and replicate the move he had learned by accident each time, thereby giving him a slight edge over the other drivers. He ultimately finished seventh as he had to nurse the car around the track with no brakes, near the end of the race.
1963 began with another track record as Jones qualified Ol’ Calhoun on the Pole again at over 151 mph. He and Jim Hurtubise, driving the powerful Novi, had an epic duel as they swapped positions for the lead for the first couple of laps. Later on, Jones battled Jim Clark in one of the four rear-engine cars in the field that day. Jones seemingly took the lead from Clark for good on lap 95. Then when Eddie Sachs spun on lap 160, he claimed that he had spun in oil that was leaking from Parnelli’s car. Sure enough, Jones’s car had developed a crack in the oil reserve tank mounted on the outer left side of the car. On lap 170, chief steward Harlan Fengler was about to order starter Pat Vidan to give the black flag to Parnelli. With the trackside objections from Jones’s car owner J.C. Agajanian, saying that the oil level had dropped below the crack and was no longer leaking – Fengler relented and Jones was allowed to continue as he drove to victory.
Not every driver was thrilled with Parnelli’s victory. Many thought that he should have been black-flagged. Eddie Sachs confronted Jones at the Speedway Motel the day following the race and suddenly found himself at the wrong end of Parnelli’s fist – end of discussion.
The 1964 race was difficult for many reasons. Sachs and rookie Dave MacDonald were both fatally injured in a fiery crash at the completion of lap 2. As was the case with many drivers in 1964, Jones had his choice of a new rear-engine design or to go with trusty Ol’ Calhoun one more time. Jones chose the latter. After Jim Clark dropped out on lap 48, Parnelli was in a duel for the lead with AJ Foyt. Jones pitted on lap 55. As he pulled out of his pit, it is believed that static electricity caused his fuel tank to explode. As he drove down pit lane, Ol’ Calhoun was engulfed in invisible methanol flames. Parnelli bailed out of the car unhurt, but his day was done. After a fourth place start, the defending champion would have to settle for twenty-third.
My first Indianapolis 500 was in 1965 and I knew who I was pulling for. Parnelli had abandoned Ol’ Calhoun for a Lotus with a very unique paint scheme. It was solid gold, about the color of a Notre Dame football helmet – with a solid white strip going down the middle. It absolutely glistened in the sunlight every time it went by our seats in turn four. Jones qualified fifth and finished second to Jim Clark, two laps down. Although the record books show that Jones completed 200 laps; in those days several cars would be allowed to race the full 200 laps even as the winner was celebrating in Victory Lane. Nowadays, the race is flagged with the winner and only those that are on the lead lap are allowed to complete 200 laps.
Contrary to popular belief, USAC had not outlawed gasoline after the deadly 1964 race. Instead, it was mandatory to make two pit stops. The downside to methanol was that it didn’t get as good of fuel mileage as gasoline did. But if two stops were mandatory, it only made sense to use methanol. Jones and Agajanian chose to use a gasoline-methanol blend, which resulted in a car that was down on power all day. All cars ran methanol in 1966.
Jones started the 1966 race in fourth position, which allowed him to avoid the opening lap melee that took out one-third of the field. However, he was not able to escape the fate of a faulty wheel bearing which forced him to settle for fourteenth place. This would mark the last time Parnelli Jones would drive for J.C. Agajanian. He had decided to retire from IndyCar competition, but a new challenge made him re-think his decision.
Andy Granatelli had built a turbine-powered car in complete secrecy and convinced Parnelli Jones that he should be the one to drive it. The car looked like something from the future. I was sitting in our new seats in Grandstand A, directly across the track from the entrance to Gasoline Alley when they wheeled out this monster the morning of qualifying. Even on such a gloomy day, this car glowed as if on fire. As an eight year old, I had never seen such a color or such a car. It was dubbed the “Wooshmobile” as well as “Silent Sam” for good reason – it hardly made a sound as it zipped by on its qualifying run. The run itself was disappointing. Ironically, the sixth place qualifying effort for the car was Parnelli Jones’s worst starting position in his entire career at the Speedway.
It didn’t matter. By the time the field reached turn three on the opening lap, the four-wheeled drive brute had bullied its way past the field and into the lead. Except for an excursion through the infield on lap 52 after contact with Lee Roy Yarbrough – Jones never looked back. He absolutely dominated the race, while others simply fought for “best in class”. That all changed on lap 197 when a six-dollar transmission bearing failed and Parnelli helplessly coasted the silent beast to a stop.
AJ Foyt went on to win his third Indy 500 that day, while Parnelli Jones called it a career. As quickly as Parnelli had stormed into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, seven races later he was done. He wasn’t done at the Speedway, however.
In 1969, Jones and his business partner Velco “Vel” Miletich formed Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing. They won the Indy 500 twice, in 1970 and 1971 both times with Al Unser as the driver. In 1973, they formed the first “Super Team”, which consisted of Unser, Mario Andretti and Joe Leonard. Although Leonard has fallen into relative obscurity compared to his famous teammates, it was Leonard who fared the best of the three. VPJ Racing later tried their hand at Formula One in the mid-seventies with very limited success – their best finish was fourth in the Swedish Grand Prix in 1975 with Mario Andretti at the helm.
Parnelli Jones grew up and still lives in Torrance, CA. He is now 76 and his two sons have both raced. His oldest son, PJ has had a modest career at Indy. His younger son Page, was seriously injured in a sprint car accident.
Parnelli Jones has been involved with some form of racing for most of his life. However, it isn’t his entire life. He is an accomplished businessman in his own right, having owned several successful tire dealerships throughout California.
But the wide-eyed five year old that’s still inside of me, will never forget going through those programs long ago and seeing Parnelli Jones at the wheel of Ol’ Calhoun. Some visions never go away.