The Petersen Museum hosted a celebration of Trans Am, Indy, sprint car, and off-road racing legend Parnelli Jones as it awarded the beloved racer the Robert E Petersen Lifetime Achievement Award on November 8. The museum used the event to open a new exhibit on Southern California’s contribution to motorsports, “Legends of Los Angeles: Southern California Race Cars and Their Builders,” which includes Parnelli’s famous Big Oly Bronco that captured the overall win at the 1970 Baja 500 and 1971 Baja 1000.
Host Tommy Kendall, who had quite the Trans Am career of his own, spoke to Parnelli as the racing legend shared some of his favorite stories that spanned his racing career, which began in quarter-mile racing on horseback. As Parnelli outgrew his role as a jockey, literally, he moved into racing jalopies, stripped down ’32-’34 Fords. Some of his most colorful stories involved a run-in with NASCAR’s Bill France, lamenting his mechanical failure at the 1967 Indy 500 while driving the STP-Paxton turbine car, and one harrowing tale about competing at Pikes Peak.
A large contingent of Parnelli’s family was in attendance, including his wife, Judy, his sons PJ and Page, and several grandchildren. Many of Parnelli’s friends from the racing community were there in person to show their support as well, including former racer and team owner Chip Ganassi, off-road racing champions Larry Ragland and Walker Evans, land speed pioneer Craig Breedlove, with Ed Pink, Tom Long, and Don “Snake” Prudhomme representing the drag racing community.
The well-deserved award is the latest in a number of honors bestowed upon Parnelli, including membership to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, and the Off-road Motorsports Hall of Fame. Representing the various racing disciplines where Parnelli excelled were several of the vehicles that he’s raced, including perhaps the most famous Ford Bronco ever to take to Baja, the Big Oly Bronco.
The Bronco is now in the Charles Nearburg Family Gallery on the museum’s second floor. The “Legends of Los Angeles: Southern California Race Cars and Their Builders” exhibit includes significant race cars from the 1920s through the 1980s. Prior to its renovation in 2015, the Petersen had a permanent exhibit that celebrated the contributions of Southern California car builders and innovators, but it was never this prominent or well-stocked.
Don Long, Don Prudhomme, and Ed Pink, the chassis builder, driver, and engine builder of the Shelby’s Super Snake dragster, respectively, reconvened at the Petersen. Prudhomme recently had the 427-SOHC-powered Super Snake restored and now it, along with an Offenhauser engine, forms the center row of the Petersen’s special exhibit.
The Tamale Wagon was powered by a 302 small-block Chevy with DOHC Moser heads and burned alcohol by way of mechanical fuel injection. It was built by Don Edmunds in Santa Ana for owner Alex Morales and had several successful racing seasons with a number of drivers. In 1978, piloted by Rick Goudy, it won the California Racing Association sprint car championship.
Every Indy 500 winner from 1947 to 1964 was powered by an Offenhauser engine. It traces its roots to Fred Miller’s Los Angeles race shop, where Fred Offenhauser completed it design and continued its production after buying the race business from Miller in 1933.
Built for the 1966 Indy 500 and piloted by Dan Gurney until a first-lap crash took it out of contention, this is the first All American Racer (AAR) Eagle that was built in the company’s Santa Ana home.
This is just a sample of the new exhibit, and of course there’s a lot more to see at the Petersen. The Porsche Effect is still in the museum’s Mullin Grand salon and of course there’s the Vault. General admission tickets to the Petersen Museum are $16 for adults. Tickets can be purchased at the Petersen website.