Respected at Every Track: Remembering Parnelli Jones

The Henry Ford

Parnelli Jones—who died Tuesday at the age of 90—was the avatar of steely-eyed, crew-cut oval-track racing in the 1960s. Yes, he also won a hard-fought Trans-Am championship in 1970, famously outbrawling Mark Donohue, aka Captain Nice. But Parnelli didn’t have much use for road racers back then. As he told his car owner, NASCAR stalwart (and D-Day veteran) Bud Moore, “Ain’t none of those fruitcuppers gonna outrun me.”

So I was a bit worried about the reception I was going to receive when I sat down in his office to interview him for a magazine called Sports Car International, which was written, edited and published by a small band of devoted fruitcuppers. This was 30-something years ago, when Parnelli was long retired from a driving career that had seen him win everything from the Indy 500 to the Mexican 1000. He’d shut down his Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing team, which had been the King Kong of American motorsports in the 1970s, and he’d sold off the extensive portfolio of Firestone tire shops that had made him a very rich man. By then, he spent his time managing his Southern California real estate empire and puttering around local golf courses.

Parnelli Jones Trophy Case
The Henry Ford

Close friends called him Rufus—his given name—or Rufe. The rest of the world knew him simply as Parnelli. He’d mellowed over the years, but he wasn’t soft. He still had the arctic-blue eyes, the granite jaw, the thrice-broken nose. Unlike his great friend and even greater rival, A.J. Foyt, he was still trim enough to climb into a midget and sling it around for hot laps, and there was nothing that tickled him more than outrunning his sons, P.J. and Page, who were embarking on careers as professional racers. “He always had to lead,” Al Unser, who won Indy twice while driving for him, once told me. “If he’d ever settled down, he probably would have won twice as many races as he did. But he just couldn’t stand running second. It’s not just racing either. If you’re playing pool or golf, or if it’s just arm wrestling, the man has to win.”

Parnelli Jones seated portrait
The Henry Ford

Parnelli greeted me with a firm handshake and a chilly smile, and I figured the interview would last about as long as a heat race in one of the many USAC sprint car shows he dominated in the early 1960s. Much to my surprise, he spent the rest of the afternoon with me. He squired me around the museum he maintained upstairs, passing along loving histories of each of the cars. Then we sat down with his partner, the large and expansive Vel Miletich, and longtime right-hand man Jimmy Dilamarter.

A few weeks earlier, Dilamarter said, he’d been out with Parnelli when another driver tried to cut in line at a freeway onramp. Parnelli ran him onto the shoulder and off the road, and he would have driven him into a bridge abutment if the guy hadn’t backed off. Then, with a big belly laugh, Miletich recalled how Parnelli had terrorized the NASCAR regulars in a Ford stock car at Darlington, repeatedly pulling slide jobs that forced the other drivers to stand on the brakes to avoid a wreck in Turn 3. After the car went several laps down due to mechanical issues, Miletich put driver Marvin Porter in the cockpit. After the race, a perplexed Porter told him, “These guys sure are polite. Every time I reach a corner, everybody backs off for me.”

Of course, these stories fit squarely into the Parnelli mythology. What I didn’t expect to find was that the man was genuinely funny. Whenever I saw him, he’d regale me with stories from a treasure trove of hilarious anecdotes. One of his (and my) favorites was about how he got involved in the relatively new sport of off-road racing.

“That was Bill Stroppe’s doing,” he said. “He asked me to do a race in Las Vegas. I wasn’t interested, but Bill said, ‘I guess you’re not man enough to do it.’ Well, that was like waving a red cape in front of a bull. So I agreed to do it, and I told the guy riding with me, ‘Alright, you tap my leg if you think I’m going too hard.’” Parnelli snorted. “That guy plumb beat me to death. And I beat the shit out of the car. I mean, I knocked the front tires clean off of it. And I ran it on the rims for so long that they had to take a torch and cut them off.”

Big Oly Bronco action
Courtesy Mecum

But what was so refreshing—and surprising—about Parnelli was his humility. Well, maybe humility is the wrong word, because he was clear-eyed about his skills. Once, when I asked him which drivers he’d feared back in the day, he was silent for a long time before saying, “I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging. But I always felt that other drivers were there just to be beaten.” That said, he wasn’t what he called “an ego guy.” He gave credit where credit was due, and he wasn’t always the hero of his own stories.

He admitted that he pushed his cars too hard—he’s the all-time leader of the Broke While Leading category—and he blamed himself for the failure of the STP turbine whooshmobile that crapped out within eight miles of winning Indy in 1967. He acknowledged that he was terrified by running sprint cars on Midwestern high banks, which was a major reason he quit racing open wheelers while he was still in his prime. And when he made a mistake, he owned up to it.

In 1972, VPJ went to Indy with Al Unser, who’d won the 500 for the team the previous two years. “Penske was there with the McLarens,” Parnelli recalled. “Donohue set on the pole, but they kept puking engines. At the last minute, we sold them one of ours. Well, Donohue won the race, and our cars finished second and third. That’s when I designed a belt that goes around your waist, and it has a boot on the back and a push button, and you can kick your own ass.” He roared. “Al would have won three years in a row if we hadn’t sold Donohue that engine.”

But the more I talked to Parnelli, the harder I found it to reconcile the many contradictions he embodied. He grew up poor—and poorly educated—and did a long, painful apprenticeship running jalopies on Southern California bullrings. Yet despite racing during what was statistically the most dangerous era in motorsports history, he was never seriously injured, and he ended up as one of the wealthiest drivers in the world.

Parnelli Jones Celebrating Victory at Laguna Seca Trans-Am Race 1970
The Henry Ford

On ovals, whether the rutted dirt of Langhorne or the smooth pavement of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he was uniquely relaxed and precise. “He never looked like he was going fast,” said Johnny Rutherford, who raced against him on both tracks. “He made it look effortless.” But in road racing, he was a wild man, infamously punting John Surtees halfway to Salinas during a Can-Am race at Laguna Seca (which he won). And as his one-time Trans-Am teammate Dan Gurney recalled, “When you were following right behind him, he’d carve the edge off [the corners] and throw rocks at you. He did that to me once at Kent and broke my windshield.”

The Henry Ford

And then there was the man himself. Away from the track, he was too tightly wound to be truly avuncular, but there was nothing about the way he carried himself that hinted at his legendary combativeness. I mean, this was a guy who punched out another driver after winning the Indy 500. As Bobby Unser, who’d been mentored by him, once told me, “Parnelli’s a very gentle person, but he can be extremely ornery. Extremely ornery. He was one guy Foyt never picked on. Foyt might have been able to whip him, but Parnelli was like a wolverine. He would have chewed on his ears and bitten his nose off. And even if he’d gotten whipped, he would have waited until he healed up, and then he would have come right back at him.”

Parnelli didn’t exude the swagger of A.J. Foyt or the charisma of Mario Andretti. He wasn’t as sunny as Dan Gurney or as quotable as Bobby Unser. But he was one of one, and what a great one he was.


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    If that Turbine would have won in 67 racing would have changed. Would have been interesting-

    What a great tribute to my favorite driver of the era! I was blessed to be able to spend some time with him in the later years.

    He was a true driver. Great guy off the track but he would steal your lunch and eat it in front of you on the track. He was much like Dale Earnhardt in this respect. Back in those days you didn’t win you didn’t eat too.

    As for the Turbine. If another driver had driven it the car may not have run as well as it did. That is what killed the car not the part that broke. It ran too good. Part of that was the car but much of it was his ability to adapt to it. It was not a car just anyone could drive.

    The sad race was the race he lost to Foyt at Indy. But he did come back in the same car and won the next year. I think it was a leaking oil tank. They fixed that so it would not happen again and Old Calhoun won the race.

    This was an era where men were men and Bruce Jenner had yet to arrive in Trans Am.

    I often wondered what Parnelli would have done in a Penske car. He never has the engineering from Ford that GM gave Penske. Mark was a good driver but his cars also helped him win. He even won in a AMC.

    I had the honor to sit next to him on a short flight (I forget the city pair), he was in the middle seat and PJ had the window. I saw his name on his briefcase tag, and mentioned that he had the same name as the famous race car driver. He scoffed and said that he drove much better than that guy! After admitting he was that guy, I still could not fathom that he was flying coach, and in a middle seat! Not that he needed the leg room, but coach? What a cool individual, great businessman, awesome competitor, what a great run, another legend gone.

    JeffS, I had a similar experience but with Muhammed Ali. Flying into one of the Carolinas in the ’80’s. Ali, dressed impeccably in a grey suit and black tie, was sitting on the window seat in coach. He gave everyone who asked an autograph and was particularly nice to children who were asking. He was a big man; coach??

    Back in 2011, my dad and I were at the Indianapolis 500 centennial celebration with our 1912 Hudson Mile-A-Minute Speedster.

    We had gone for a walk to look at some of the other cars, and when we came back there was an old guy leaning on the fender of the Hudson. Dad wasted no time giving the guy a piece of his mind, completely oblivious to the video cameras and the fact that it was Parnelli Jones doing a recorded interview.

    I’ll never forget the day I met Parnelli, and I’d like to think he never forgot the day he met us.

    Parnelli was definitely my hero growing up. I saw him at Riverside several times, and I was able to get him to autograph a picture at the 73 Mint 400. It’s hanging up in my office, and has been for ages.

    Thanks for some amazing races, PJ. I’m gonna miss ya.

    he also was very powerful around the Bridgehampton race course battling it out with the other car companies

    Godspeed Parnelli! I once asked Rod Hall who he looked up as a driver/peer in his younger days and without hesitation he said “Parnelli Jones, he just had the pure talent to drive anything fast!”

    Growing up in central Indiana in the mid-sixties I was fortunate to see Parnelli race at Winchester, his win at Indy in 1963 and at IRP. I can’t recall all the tracks but to the best of my recollection I do not recall him ever losing — what a sprint car driver. In earlier comments someone mentioned how relaxed he would be while racing and I witnessed this at a race at IRP where he is thrashing a 64 Mercury within an inch of its life while driving past us with his left arm resting on the window sill!

    I’m learning now at 60 years to understand how my Dad felt when the legends of his world slowly left our realm.
    Mr. Jones was already a legend when I was a kid reading car magazines or watching racing on the Wide World of Sports.

    Grew up in Indy in the 1960s, everybody knew who Parnelli was, even before he won in ’63, and his piloting the #40 turbine car in 1967 is one of Indy’s most enduring legends. Many years later I met him at Pebble, he was there with his #98 Agajanian Special 1963 Indy 500 winner.

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