In the rough and tumble world of American stock car and Indianapolis-style racing, Parnelli Jones was one of the most outstanding performers, winning many races and being involved in many controversies. Born Rufus Parnell Jones, on 12 August 1933, the young Californian soon gravitated towards racing cars; at the age of nineteen he took part in his first race, a stock car event in Los Angeles.
The California Racing Association
For the next four years he took part in practically every stock-car race organised by the California Racing Association, gaining a number of victories, before turning to sprint car racing. Despite joining in half way through the 1959 season, he drove incredibly well in unfamiliar cars, and managed to finish fifth in the Sprint-Car Championship.
Jones then joined the United States Automobile Club and, in 1960, set the lap record at Houston in his first event, in which he finished third. During the remainder of the season he won no less than seven of the thirteen races he contested. Jones also attracted a great deal of attention by putting in the fastest lap at Milwaukee in his sprint car, which beat the lap record of the bigger-engined Indianapolis-type cars.
J. C. Agajanian and the Willard Battery Special
This naturally brought Jones to the notice of the wealthy car owners who virtually controlled Indianapolis racing. He came under the wing of the flamboyant J. C. Agajanian, a cowboy-hatted millionaire, who entered him for Indianapolis races in his Willard Battery Special. Jones took in a few minor championship races late in 1960, his best placing being second at Sacramento. However, in 1961, he was given a full season of Championship racing and in the Indianapolis 500 he qualified fifth fastest. In the race he was running well, until the engine went off tune, and he finished twelfth.
Rookie of the Year
Late in 1961 Jones gained his first Championship win, the Phoenix 100 and was voted as 'Rookie of the Year'. In sprint-car racing he won nine races to become champion for the second year running. For 1962 he again drove the Willard Battery Special, showing his skill by becoming the first man to lap the 2½-mile Indianapolis track at over 150 mph, in qualifying, to give him the coveted pole position for the race. He led for 120 laps but vibration broke a pipe line which slowed him to an eventual seventh place. His only victory that year in Championship cars was in the Hoosier 100 at Indianapolis, but his consistent placings gave him third place in the USAC Championship.
In sprint-car racing Jones won the Championship yet again to become only the third man to win the title three times. By 1963 the rear-engine revolution at Indianapolis was well under way with Jim Clark
driving a Lotus-Ford, but Jones stuck with his old fashioned 'Dinosaur', as the front-engined 'Indy' cars were called, and he won the race in a very controversial finish. His car was leaking oil towards the end of the race, an offence which normally calls for the car to be flagged into the pits at Indianapolis, but the Stewards allowed Jones to carry on to victory, with Clark slipping and sliding in second place on the oily surface.
The Bowes Seal Fast Special
The Europeans angrily disputed the 'home town' decision, but Jones was confirmed as winner. Jones had now turned back to stock-car racing as a sideline to the Indianapolis-style events; he raced in USAC events with a Mercury, picking up three wins in 1963. Although the mid-engined cars were beginning to swamp the 'Dinosaurs' at Indianapolis, Jones continued with Agajanian in 1964, this time with a Bowes Seal Fast Special. The 'Indy' 500 race developed into a battle between Jones and A. J. Foyt, both in 'Dinosaurs', but Jones' fuel tank caught fire during a pit stop and he had to abandon the car, leaving Foyt to win.
Despite the speed of his and Foyt's old-fashioned cars, he knew that time was running out for the front-engined machines so, later in 1964, he switched to a Lotus-Ford for several races, winning the Milwaukee 200 and Trenton 200 to wind up sixth in the USAC Championship. The versatile Jones continued with a Mercury in stock-car races, winning seven of the fourteen races he entered, taking the USAC Stock Car Championship. He also won the Pikes Peak class again and for good measure won the Riverside sports-car race in a Cooper.
Although he reduced his participation in sprint and midget races, he still won seven midget races and one sprint race. Jones was now fully established as one of the greats of American motor racing, able to pick and choose the cars he drove. For 1965, he drove a revamped 1964 Lotus-Ford for Agajanian, under the name of Hurst Special, but the car proved to be troublesome, suffering several chassis failures, one of them causing the Lotus to hit a wall at Indianapolis. However, in the 500 the car ran well and he finished a comfortable second place, behind Jim Clark's Lotus. He also won the Milwaukee 100 with the Lotus, but the rest of the season provided him mostly with retirements.
The Colt Ford run bu the Vels Parnelli team and driven to victory in the 1971 Indy.
Andy Granatelli's STP Special
For 1966, Agajanian decided on a Shrike chassis, powered by a supercharged Offenhauser engine for Indianapolis and with this car, known as the REV 500 Special, Jones qualified fourth fastest at Indianapolis at 162-484 mph, but his engine gave up after 87 laps of the race. Jones at last deserted Agajanian in 1967 in favour of the exciting new STP Special from Andy Granatelli. This gas-turbine-powered car proved to be a sensation at Indianapolis, it was streets ahead of anything else, allowing Jones to lead the race with ease, until, with only three laps to go, a drive-shaft bearing failed and he coasted to a stop, being credited with sixth place.
The Indianapolis rules were changed for 1968 to make the turbine engines less competitive. However, Jones was entered in an STP Lotus turbine car for the 'Indy' 500 but he withdrew before the race, saying that the cars were not competitive enough. At this point Jones decided to retire from single-seater racing, but throughout the rest of 1968 he took part in USAC stock-car events, winning several more races. By 1969, Jones was beginning to run down his racing participation to concentrate on his thriving businesses as a Firestone tire distributor in California and as a Ford car dealer, but he continued to drive in stock-car events.
The Trans-Am Ford Mustang Team
In 1970 Jones organised and drove in the Trans-Am Ford Mustang team; he won no less than five races to give Ford the Championship. Together with a well known tuner and car builder, Bill Stroppe, Parnelli Jones formed an organisation to~un various types of car, principally for Ford. They ran the Trans-Am cars and also built four-wheel-drive Ford Bronco pick-ups, which ran very successfully in the Baja 1000 and other off-road events in Southern California. Parnelli Jones himself drove in these events, showing his versatility once again by winning the Baja 1000.
However, he gradually tapered off his own competition activities and formed a new company to build racing cars, principally for USAC Indianapolis races. Their first effort at an Indianapolis car was a very radical design which performed poorly to start with, but then driver Joe Leonard picked up three major wins in 1972 USAC races. Little success came to the team in 1973 or 1974 in USAC racing, despite using top drivers like Mario Andretti and Al Unser.
In late 1973, it was announced that the Vels Parnelli team would build a Formula One car powered by the Ford DFV engine. The car was driven by Mario Andretti but development was hampered by a lack of finance and time. The car was forced to run on Goodyear tyres after Firestone withdrew from racing in 1975. In 1976 Andretti contested only the Long Beach Grand Prix - from which he retired after fifteen laps - and the Formula One team was disbanded.
Jones had more success with his other racing operations. In 1975 Andretti and Al Unser won all eight races in the US Formula 5000 championship and in 1976 Unser, using a turbo-charged Cosworth DFX engine developed by the team, won three USAC Championship races, including the prestigious Pocono 500. Unser also finished second in the 5000 championship. The team continued to develop the Cosworth engine in their USAC racing programme in 1977, with Unser joined in the team by Danny Ongais. Unser started the season well for Jones, with second places in the Texas and Ontario races, but then a string of failures halted progress.