1970 ford mustang boss 302
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Parnelli Jones was born in 1933, a couple of years after Dan Gurney and a few years before A.J. Foyt, Mark Donohue, and Mario Andretti. In a generation of versatile American drivers, Jones may or may not have been the most versatile. But he was definitely the most American.

“I was into horses when I was younger,” Jones told me in 2013. “When I turned 16, I sold my horse and bought a hot rod. I had to work after school in this mechanic’s garage to keep it running. Because I was doing that, my cousin took his wife’s old ’30 Ford and made a jalopy out of it. Since I was working in the garage, he thought I had some mechanical knowledge, and he used to let me warm the car up. And that sort of started the whole thing.”

This story originally appeared in Volume 9 of Road & Track.


His “whole thing” has been a fiery, indomitable racing and business adventure. It includes winning the 1963 Indianapolis 500 driving J.C. Agajanian’s front-engine roadster, and later win- ning that race twice in a row—in 1970 and ’71—as an owner, with Al Unser driving. Meanwhile, also in 1970, his driving earned the SCCA’s Trans-Am road-racing championship for Ford and his first of three victories in Baja. At the same time, he also co-owned the Ford dealership in his hometown of Torrance, California, and was engaged in opening 47 Firestone stores across California. He dabbled in real estate too. Then there were his Formula 5000 and Formula 1 teams, and that time he backed a drag car.

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The ’62 Indy 500 was a heartbreaker for Jones. He sat on pole and led 120 laps but had no brakes after the first pit stop. He finished seventh.
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“I’m the kind of guy who likes to see what’s on the other side of the hill,” Jones explained about the diversity of his racing and business lives. “So I’ve enjoyed them all. Certainly I enjoyed doing the Baja races as much as far as just having fun. Of course, winning Indianapolis is the most outstanding in my career. That was also fun because I adapted to Indy really well. And I had very much success as a rookie there and so on.”

Jones’s unusual name came from whimsy and racing. “My mother named me after a judge; he was the most successful person she knew,” he told Hot Rod magazine. “His name was Rufus Parnell. . . . When I first started racing, I was only 17 years old, and you had to be 21 at that time, so I needed some phony ID. My partner in the old jalopy that I ran used to call me Parnelli all the time, because there was a little girl at school named Nellie, and he’d call me Parnelli. When he made my phony ID up, the kids in this area, if I went by Rufus, would have known I wasn’t 21 years old, and that would have gotten out. So when he lettered the car and made my phony ID, he did that. He originally spelled it Parnellie, but I dropped the ‘e’ to make it sound more Italian.”

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OL’ CALHOUN: Jones would compete in his first four Indy 500s at the wheel of this Offy-powered Watson roadster, which he nicknamed “Ol’ Calhoun.” In his rookie run in 1961, he was leading when he was hit in the face by metal debris, which cut his forehead and filled the right side of his goggles with blood. He finished 12th. In ’62, the brakes failed. And in 1964, the thing lit Jones on fire during a pit stop, and he had to bail out on pit road. But in 1963, despite an oil leak, Jones would win his one and only Indy 500 at the wheel of J.C. Agajanian’s racer, beating Jim Clark’s future-looking rear-engine Lotus in the process. It was the penultimate win for a front-engine roadster at Indianapolis. –Daniel Pund
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Jones and his family moved from Arkansas to Torrance when Parnelli was only two. It was the perfect age to grow up in Los Angeles County’s South Bay surrounded by dirt ovals. Jones’s first racing was at the half-mile Carrell Speedway in Gardena in 1952, and after he toned down his desire to beat everyone by the first corner of the race, victories began accumulating.

Jones raced almost anything with a seat during the Fifties but found his greatest success in sprint cars. In 1958, he joined the California Racing Association (CRA) series. By 1959, he was splitting his time between CRA out West, the International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) sprinters in the Midwest, and the United States Auto Club (USAC) events in the East. He took USAC’s 1960 Midwest sprint-car crown, and in 1961, he won USAC’s first national sprint-car championship.

That success was enough to earn him his first ride in the then-USAC-sanctioned 1961 Indianapolis 500. He qualified fifth, led twice for a total of 27 laps, and finished 12th. Jones was named co–rookie of the year alongside Bobby Marshman, who finished seventh. He came back for the 1962 race and set a new qualifying record of 150.370 mph, becoming the first driver to qualify at more than 150 mph. Though he led 120 of the 200 laps that year, an exhaust pipe burned through his roadster’s brake line, and Jones ended up finishing seventh.

While 1963 was the year Colin Chapman showed up with a rear-engine Lotus and changed the race forever, Jones dominated, leading 167 of the 200 laps and winning with a record average speed of 143.137 mph. Then he got into a fistfight.

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Jones had never experienced a series with the level of factory support that Trans-Am had. He won the title for Ford in 1970.
Michael Ochs Archives

A few hours after the 500’s post-race driver luncheon, Eddie Sachs approached Jones at a Holiday Inn near the speedway. According to an Associated Press report, Sachs asserted that Jones’s roadster had spewed oil onto the track surface, causing Sachs to spin. No one is quite sure who called whom a liar first, but as the conversation grew louder, Jones threatened, “You call me a liar again and I’ll bust you right in the mouth.” Sachs replied, “You’re a liar.” So the 29-year-old Jones belted the 36-year- old Sachs, who had finished 17th, in the mouth.

After a pit fire, Jones ran 23rd in the 1964 Indy 500. He finished second behind Jim Clark’s dominant rear-engine Lotus in 1965. And he came in 14th in 1966. Those races served as prelude to the 1967 Indy, when Andy Granatelli hired him to drive the radical STP-Paxton turbine-powered, all-wheel-drive race car.

While Jones had qualified only sixth in the turbine car, the awesome ability of the machine was obvious. On the first lap of the race, Jones swept past four cars through Turn 1 and then caught and passed pole sitter Mario Andretti on the backstretch. Jones has maintained ever since that Andretti gave him the one-finger salute as he passed. Andretti said, “I may have done that.” Jones then led 171 of the 200 laps that day and was never seriously challenged. Near the end of the race only A.J. Foyt was on the same lap as Jones. With three laps left, a bearing in Jones’s transmission failed, and the car rolled to a halt. Foyt won. It was the last time Jones would drive in the 500.

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Another near miss at Indy. In 1967, Jones piloted the radical and superfast STP turbine car to within four laps of an easy win before the trans- mission broke.
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Jones’s mighty and pugnacious reputation made him a sought-after gun for hire running stock cars, sprint cars, Indy cars, and sports cars for virtually anyone who would pay him. He won in practically all the series—four times in 34 NASCAR starts and the stock-car division of the 1964 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb—but never chased a drivers’ championship. Though he was tempted.

“I would have liked to run Formula 1 under the right circumstances,” he explained. “That’s the one thing I didn’t do. I was offered a ride in Formula 1 with Chapman and Lotus when I drove their car [in 1964] at Milwaukee and won and Trenton and won. But I felt I was going to be second to Jimmy Clark. And I didn’t think I was number two to anyone.”

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In 1969, Jones and his partner Velko “Vel” Mile- tich formed Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing (VPJ) and began entering several race series. Success came quickly. Besides the two-in-a-row Indy 500 wins in 1970 and ’71, the team took the USAC IndyCar crown in ’70 with Unser, then won it again in ’71 and ’72 with driver Joe Leonard.

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Jones’s race team competed in every- thing from NHRA Funny Cars to F1. Here, Mario Andretti races a Parnelli-Ford VPJ4 at the 1975 German Grand Prix.
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The VPJ team was establishing itself, and Jones was investing in real estate while Parnelli Jones Inc. opened those Firestone tire stores. But he wasn’t quite done driving. Two of the biggest parts of his legend—the Trans-Am Mustang and the Big Oly Bronco—were still to come.

The off-road races were brutal. “They were tough, and you had to be in good shape physically,” Jones said. “You’re sitting in the car for 15 or 16 hours. And it’s the fact that you have to keep concentrating.”

During the Seventies, VPJ teams would innovate at Indy, run hard in the Formula 5000 road-racing series, and even on occasion enter a Funny Car in NHRA events. VPJ even built a car and campaigned in Formula 1 from 1974 to early ’76 without success. That’s zero for 16, with its best finish a fourth with Mario Andretti driving in the 1975 Swedish Grand Prix.

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Throughout his career, Jones raced plenty of stock cars, including this Ford owned by longtime associate Vel Miletich.
Racing One

But Jones’s legacy isn’t solely in machinery, or trophies, or his enshrined presence in practically every motorsport hall of fame. It’s also in his sons P.J. and Page, both of whom raced. And it’s in his 19-year-old grandson, Jagger Jones, who will drive for Cape Motorsports in the USF2000 open-wheel series this year. It’s a driver-development series that bills itself as the “road to Indy.”

From horseback to race-car cockpit to seated on the pit wall as a team manager, Parnelli Jones left his mark across a broad swath of motorsport with a two-fisted approach. He didn’t always win, but he never backed down. It made him not just a racing hero, but an American champion.