Racing Legend Parnelli Jones Has Passed Away

The Henry Ford

After September 24, 1994, it was always about Page. Most every conversation I had with Parnelli Jones, the racing legend who died Tuesday, was about his son, Page, who was 22 and racing in the famous 4-Crown Nationals at Eldora Speedway in Ohio, a famous dirt oval track now owned by former NASCAR champion Tony Stewart.

Page was driving his black number 26 sprint car when he hit the wall and flipped, then was struck by another car. Page suffered a traumatic brain injury, and for three days, as he was in a coma, doctors feared for his life.

It took years, but Page recovered to an unexpected degree, eventually becoming a husband and a father. “He’s doing better,” Parnelli would say, and then tell me about Page’s latest small step back.

A documentary, Godspeed: The Story of Page Jones, was made about Page’s life. He was 37 when he said this: “I had just won the race and I hit the wall and flipped on to my side,” Page recalled. It is his last long-term memory. “I remember looking through the window of the car at the flag guy and he was throwing the yellow flag up and I thought, ‘Throw the red flag up so they stop.’ But it was too late. The guy that had crashed with me hit my roll cage and I was (unconscious).”

Page Jones Portrait Godspeed The Story of Page Jones
Page Jones1st Wave Productions/Luann Barry

That day, brother P.J. was racing in Tucson; IndyCar team owner and STP CEO Andy Granatelli offered his Learjet to fly the family to see Page. P.J. boarded the plane in Phoenix, flew to Los Angeles to pick up mother Judy, flew to Utah to pick up Parnelli, then headed to Dayton, Ohio, where Page was in the hospital, still not out of the woods. It was a month before Page could be flown to a rehabilitation center in California.

It was 18 months before Page could speak, and then it was just one word at a time. It was two years before Page could get out of his wheelchair and begin the long process of learning to walk again. “He was like a six-foot-tall baby,” Judy said in a 2004 story posted by USAC, the sanctioning body for the 4-Crown Nationals and for the Indianapolis 500 when Parnelli won it in 1963.

At the beginning of rehabilitation, physicians painted a dark picture. “One of the doctors told me that he was going to need 24 hours of help a day the rest of his life, as well as a special training table, a handicapped bathroom, wheelchair, the whole shebang,” Parnelli said. “He gave me the worst scenario in the world.”

Rehab was frustrating for Page, who Parnelli said tore up nearly 150 T-shirts. “He would reach down, grab them and put them in his mouth and just rip them right off his chest,” Parnelli said. “He was just nervous; it was just unreal. But he never ran out of T-shirts because his friends kept sending them to him. One of his friends sent him a T-shirt that had a dotted line across it, and it read, ‘Tear here, Page’. His friends really, really stuck by him.”

“It was like being born again,” Page said. “The simplest things were difficult. Instead of being a baby two or three feet off the ground, I was six feet above the ground.”

After two years in rehab in California, Page was sent to Indianapolis, then New York City, for more specialized rehabilitation. Page continued to improve. He married Jamie on April 14, 2001, and they have two sons.

“He’s just a little bit different than he was before,” Parnelli said. “What he might have lost he gained in a lot of other ways.”

Parnelli Jones Terry Kargas Petersen Museum award ceremony
Brandan Gillogly

Older brother P.J. went on to an uneven but generally successful racing career, the highlights being a win at the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona sports car endurance race in 1993, co-driving Dan Gurney’s All American Racers Eagle MkIII Toyota. He also made two Indianapolis 500 starts, 60 IndyCar starts and 33 starts in the NASCAR Cup series.

As for Rufus Parnell Jones, born August 12, 1933: His racing career began in 1950, at age 17, and ended in 1974, when he was 41. As he was easing out of the driver’s seat, he became co-owner of Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing, and won the Indianapolis 500 in 1970 and 1971 as a car owner, with Al Unser driving. Then he built a Formula 1 car for Mario Andretti; it was called the Parnelli VPJ4. He helped develop a turbocharged version of the Cosworth DFV V-8, which went on to win every Indianapolis 500 for the next 10 years. Parnelli was an astute businessman, investing in real estate and maintaining a close relationship with Firestone, which began in 1960 when he became their test driver. He owned a Ford dealership, 47 Parnelli Jones Tire Centers in four states, and was a Firestone racing tire distributor in 14 states.

Parnelli Jones store lettering
Flickr/Thomas Hawk

Decades after he hung up his helmet, his name still resonates. In 2021, at a Mecum Indianapolis auction, Parnelli’s Baja 1000-winning 1969 Ford Bronco, named Big Oly, sold for $1.87 million.

So, there was never a shortage of topics to cover. But he always wanted to talk about Page, and how P.J.’s racing career was going.

Just seven months ago, P.J. posted this on Facebook: “Parnelli is still hanging in there at 90, driving my mom crazy!” But yesterday, P.J. confirmed that his father had died with a sadder Facebook post. “My father, Parnelli Jones, passed away today at the age of 90. He had battled Parkinson’s for the last few years. I will miss him greatly!”

Acclaimed motorsports journalist Bones Bourcier is the official biographer of Parnelli, titled As a Matter of Fact, I AM Parnelli Jones, named for the answer to multiple traffic cops who, at the time, would pull drivers over for speeding and ask, “Who do you think you are, Parnelli Jones?”

The day Parnelli died, Bones posted this on Facebook: “If you love racing of any kind, you understand that this is a great redwood falling in the forest. He was among the very best in an era when the very best drove any vehicle they could climb into. Parnelli won Indy Car races in front-engine roadsters and rear-engine Lotus creations; won in NASCAR and USAC stock cars; won in USAC, CRA, and IMCA Sprint Cars on dirt and pavement; won in USAC Midgets on dirt and pavement; won in SCCA sports cars and Trans-Am sedans; won in Baja off-road trucks; basically, he won in everything he sat in, all the way back to the 1950s heyday of the California Jalopy Association, where it all began for him. ‘There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it,’ A.J. Foyt said of his old pal and rival. ‘Parnelli was a great race driver.”’

We’ll leave the last word to Roger Penske, who owns IndyCar, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a NASCAR Cup team and an IMSA GTP team, and, at 87, is a contemporary of Parnelli: “The racing world has lost a great competitor and a true champion. Parnelli Jones was one of the most accomplished racers in history, and his determination and will to win made him one of the toughest competitors I have ever seen,” Penske said. “I was proud to call Parnelli a good friend for many years, and our thoughts are with his family as we remember one of the true legends of motorsports.”


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    Man, anyone who grew up loving racing loves Parnelli Jones. He was just everywhere and into everything race-related. Whatever type of race you tuned into on TV, his name was at least mentioned. It became a cliche to say to someone who had just completed some nifty automotive feat, “Nice driving, Parnelli”. I was lucky enough to be able to watch him race at several different venues. The analogy of the redwood falling is certainly apt, for is, was (and forever will remain) a giant. A gentleman and fierce competitor, his legacy will live on and on.

    So sad to hear this. I remember rooting for Parnelli driving the stupendous STP Turbine car in the 1967 Indy 500. I listened to the race on the radio and became an Indy fan for life at the age of 11. I still remember the sadness I felt when the car broke with only a couple laps to go.

    This is sad but he came from an era where many drivers got old. He was right there with AJ and Mario with his driving. He could drive many cars coming from the dirt.

    We had a local mechanic here my dad used when I was small. Don Ruble. He closed up shop and went to work for Panelli’s race team in the 70’s. So while my family was a Goodyear family since that is where Dad worked we still would cheer on Parelli’s team.

    I still remember pages accident and so happy he has recover as much as he has so few come back from those kinds of injuries.

    We are nearing the end of an era. We only have a could racers left like Aj and Mario. The Unsers, Gurney are gone as well many others.

    Growing up in the shadow of the tire companies here we as kids grew up on these drives. We would watch them race and come to town here to visit. They were our heros.

    The man was an icon of toughness and a legend, and both should survive forever as our motivation in our endeavors. God speed, Parnelli.

    Riverside Raceway around 1965-67?, NASCAR road racing. Parnelli Jones “accidently” blew the first turn of the esses, went out in the dirt and never let off the gas and “accidently” came back on the track after all the esses a few places closer to the lead. Accidents happen, right? Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt, and Dan Gurney at Riverside was the greatest show on earth.

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