Parnelli Jones. The name alone evokes images of raw talent, fast cars, dogged determination, and innumerable victories in many different forms of motorsport. Rufus Parnell “Parnelli” Jones was born in Texarkana, Arkansas, but by the time he was seven his family had moved to Torrance, California. Before his 18th birthday, Parnelli was behind the wheel of a race car.
A friend nicknamed him Parnelli in an effort to keep Jones’ parents from finding out their under-age son was racing cars, but that didn’t last, and before too long, his mother could be found in the grandstands. By the time he was 30, Parnelli had broken the Indianapolis Motor Speedway record (150 mph) and taken the checkered flag. Today, at 81, he is the oldest living Indianapolis 500 winner.
However, none of the fire that burns in one of the most proliferate American race car drivers has cooled even one degree. When my cohort B.J. Kimbrough and I sat down with Parnelli to bench race through decades of motorsports, it was quite apparent that he is still driven and outspoken. The day’s conversation started where it should have — in the beginning.
“First of all I didn’t finish high school and I was a little rugged kind of kid. I had a chip on my shoulder … you know, wanted to be something. I didn’t start many fights, but didn’t turn down many of them you know, so when I got into racing I had a few ups and downs, especially in those early jalopy races.”
“We would have as many as 200 cars show up to qualify. They only took maybe 16 cars for the main event. So you had to fight for every inch. One night a guy purposely stuck me in the wall and I got out of the car and punched him. So there was a meeting and talk about suspending me, and they wanted to know if I would continue it. I said ‘Well, I guaranty I’m not going to let it go.'”
“So when the meeting was over, the guy’s brother came over to me and said, ‘I heard you’re going to continue this thing when we go back on the track.’ And I said, ‘You can make that a promise.’ He took a swing at me, so I punched him too. After that we got along pretty good. But I had a lot of ‘smoothing’ out to do in those early days.”
Off Road Xtreme: “What was your road to the Indianapolis 500?”
Parnelli Jones: “Well, I could have gone to Indy a couple of years before I did, but the cars [he was driving then] weren’t in top-notch condition. I thought, when I go to Indy, I want to make sure I have a decent ride.”
“I went back in 1960, and had been running sprint cars for a full year (’59) with the USAC guys. Aggie [Agajanian] knew about me. We were good friends, but he had a good driver in Lloyd Ruby. It wasn’t in the cards at that time.”
“I was driving a sprint car out of Phoenix then and the owner bought an old Jimmy Bryan Champ car. I ran the car a few times, but I got to Indianapolis late because I had been running sprint cars all year. I hadn’t done Indy before, not a driver’s test or anything else.”
“Jimmy Paulsen had a Quinn Epperly laid down car [the engine was leaned over to the left for better car handling in the turns] and I asked him if I could take a ride in his car at the Speedway on tire test day. I went a couple of laps and they came out jumping up and down like a Chevy pushrod. The officials got upset because I was running them [tires] too fast. The record was like 147. I was running 140. I didn’t think I was running that fast. They came in and chewed my ass out.”
“I told Paulsen, ‘I can’t believe that I ran that fast. I think I can break the track record in that car right now.’ Paulsen said, ‘You gotta be kiddin?’ I said, ‘No I’m not kiddin!’ So he put Tony Bettenhausen in the car to see how good it was, and he went out and ran within a half-mile-an-hour below the record and fell in love with the car.”
“Bettenhausen, who was driving for Lindsey Hopkins, told Hopkins, ‘You either buy me that car or get one built for me or I’m going to drive for Aggie.’ Tony liked me so he told Aggie, ‘If Hopkins doesn’t buy that car for me, I’ll come drive for you. But if I don’t, you better get Parnelli.’ So that’s kind of in a back way how I came to Indy, even though I knew Aggie and we were close.”
“First time out, I went over and broke the record. I came back in ’63, sat on the pole with a 150 mph, and won the race. It was really something. Everybody was acting like that was the end of the world. It’s nothing now, they warm up now at 200.”
ORX: “You also raced at the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb, did your dirt track experience in those early years of your career help you there?”
Parnelli: “Oh yeah, it certainly did help. Pike’s Peak is probably the most dangerous course I’ve ever driven. You have to have a lot of respect for it. If you’re doin’ it right, you’re sideways through most of the corners. Most of my career’s been with Ford, so when they called me and wanted me to go to Pikes Peak, well, I’m the kind of guy who likes to see what’s on the other side of the hill, so to speak, and I was a little bit bored at the time.”
“So I thought, well let me go try it and see what it’s like. I ran really hard down at the bottom in the trees, but when I got up higher where there was nothing on the side of the road, I made sure I got to the top. I didn’t win the first year, I finished third and my teammate won. But I came back and won the next two years in the stock car division driving that Mercury.”
ORX: “How did you get into off-road racing?”
Parnelli: “You know I won a stock car championship when USAC had a stock car division every bit as big as NASCAR, maybe bigger because we had all the Indy car drivers in stock cars there too. And of course, I had driven Pikes Peak for Bill Stroppe. He was runnin’ a couple of pickup trucks and a couple of Broncos in the Baja races, and the Star Dust 7/11 race near Las Vegas was comin’ up. So at a party Stroppe comes up to me and says, ‘Why don’t you come and drive.’ I said, ‘No Bill, I don’t think that’s my bag. I don’t do bouncing around.'”
“So Stroppe said to me, ‘Well you’re probably not man enough anyway.’ That was like throwing a red flag. I said, ‘You get that (expletive) ready right now.’ Stroppe put me with one of his drivers Ray Harvey as co-driver. Well, I didn’t pre-run, I just went out there and tore that car to pieces. Before I got to the first checkpoint, I had knocked the tires off the rims, they were hard as concrete anyway.”
“After that I was just runnin’ it on the rims, and the rims cauliflowered themselves around the vacuum plates. They had to use a torch to cut the wheels off the vacuum plates. At the start of the race I had asked Harvey to ‘tap me on the knee if you think I’m runnin’ too hard or whatever.’ Well he about beat me to death, he was hitting my knee so hard. So then I realized what an idiot I was, but I really enjoyed it.”
“Stroppe had the Baja (NORRA Mexican) 1000 comin’ up so I thought I’ll go try that too, but this time I pre-ran it with them. I made it just a little bit past San Ynez and tore the front out of it ’cause it was heavy and four-wheel-drive, with a big axle up front. Later, Ford wanted Stroppe to build a two-wheel-drive Bronco and make it real light with an I-beam front suspension under it. He built one and sent it back to them, but they decided not to do it because it wasn’t four-wheel-drive and true to the Bronco brand.”
“After they had shipped it back to Stroppe I saw it and I said, ‘I want that (expletive) race car.’ He said, ‘you gotta be kidding?’ I repeated, ‘I ain’t (expletive) you, I want that race car!’ So I wound up driving it and won the Baja (NORRA Mexican) 500 with it. Now I knew exactly what I wanted, so that’s when Dick Russell (Russell was one of Stroppe’s ace fabricators) offered to build what would become Big Oly at home. When Stroppe found out about it, he was not too happy, so we finished it up at Stroppe’s and everybody was good.”
ORX: “Big Oly’s last year was ’74, but you came back 20 years later to race off-road again with Stroppe, right?”
Parnelli: “Yeah, I drove one of Stroppe’s mini trucks [Ford Ranger] in ’92. It was the truck he’d built for Manny Equerra. It was fast, I mean it. I was leadin’ my class in the race [1992 Baja 1000] by a long shot. So when we got to Bay of Los Angeles (about a third of the way down the Baja peninsula) I think we were about third overall, and I said to the co-driver, ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to just go for a class win or do you want to go for it all?'”
“He said, ‘Let’s go for it all.’ So I took off like a shot and we got about 20 miles down the road and flipped. We landed on the wheels, so were able to make it into the pit, where we welded up the roll cage (it was bent down), and the other driver took it the rest of the way and finished.”
ORX: “You were Grand Marshall at the 2014 Mint 400, when you see the new trucks run, what do you think?”
Parnelli: “What I drove is nothing like today’s trucks. Twice the horsepower, wheel travel, and speed. There has been so much development in tires, engines, and shocks. The suspensions have really come a long way. I mean, it has been another 20 years, the trucks are so different. But if I were younger, I might give it a try.”
ORX: “For you, how is road racing different than off-road racing? How would you describe it?”
Parnelli: “Well, in road racing, if you crash, you’re out, that’s it, you’re done for the day. In off-road racing, it feels like you’re crashing all day long, but you just keep going.”
ORX: “Would you do things differently, if you had it to do all over again?”
Parnelli: “No, not really. The only thing I would change is my ability to drive a little smarter, but looking back, I have no real regrets. In the end, Stroppe was really good for me. He would always say, ‘Look, there’s coyotes out here, and snakes, we don’t want to spend the night here. Slow this thing down, okay?'”
During his long and diverse career, Parnelli Jones has raced and been victorious on tarmac and dirt, and in everything from jalopies, sprint cars, champ (Indy) cars, stock cars, sports cars, and what is arguably considered to be the first off-road funny car, the Big Oly Bronco. He openly admits to being a bit of a ruffian, but he is none-the-less one of automotive racing’s true legends.
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Photos Courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum and Parnelli Jones.