This Week in Ford Racing
October 23, 2001
FORD RACING LEGEND Parnelli Jones was one of the most versatile and successful racers of his generation, winning races in virtually every type of car he got behind the wheel of. Jones won in modifieds, sprint cars, midgets, stock cars, Indy cars, off-road vehicles and became the first man to break the 150-mile per hour barrier at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1962 before winning the annual 'Run for the Roses' a year later in 1963. One of several legends of motorsport who participated in Ford Racing's Centennial celebration two weekends ago in Dearborn, Michigan, Jones reflects back on his motorsports career and talks about today's generation of drivers in part one of a two-part interview. Part two will run next week.
PARNELLI JONES - 1963 Indianapolis 500 champion
WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO PURSUE A CAREER IN MOTORSPORTS?
"When I turned 16, I had a horse that I took and sold so I could buy a hot rod. This hot rod that I had was a T-bucket with a Model A engine in it. I used to work in this garage for a Japanese mechanic washing parts for him so I could try and keep this hot rod running half the time because I was working on it about as much as I was driving it. To make a long story short, my cousin decided to take his wife's old '34 Ford and make a jalopy out of it so they could run it in the races down at Carroll Speedway in Gardena [California]. Since I was working in this garage he thought I ought to help him, so he used to let me warm the car up and drive it a little bit. Not in the races, but it was a thrill and I guess that's where I got the bug. He never did do very well in it, so when he blew the engine my friend and I begged, borrowed and stole enough money to buy it from him. We bought an old engine from a junkyard and were going to take turns driving it. Of course, I drove the first race and he never ended up driving it at all, but we didn't do very well ourselves. Finally, he got drafted during the Korean War and was gone, so we sold the thing and got out of the business. But when he got out of the service two years later, we were both in better financial shape, so we decided to get back into it. We built a car and I had just enough experience from the first deal that I thought I ought to win every race, so after wrecking my car week after week, I had all this desire and no talent. I finally blew the engine up and some other gentlemen there by the name of Poulsen; he must have seen something good in me because he said that he'd build an engine for my car as long as I agreed to listen to him. I said sure, and he told me he'd just like me to slow down and quit trying to win the race on the first lap. He said I should just take my time and everything will be fine. So I did that and I immediately started winning races. Of course his engine ran a lot better than mine did, but from there on I started winning and it propelled me into other rides. Pretty soon I was driving for someone else and not financing my own deal anymore."
WERE YOU INFLUENCED BY SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA'S FASCINATION WITH SPEED WHILE YOU WERE GROWING UP? DO YOU THINK MAYBE IF YOU WERE BORN IN TEXAS YOU'D HAVE BEEN A FOOTBALL PLAYER, OR IF YOU WERE BORN IN MINNESOTA YOU'D HAVE BEEN A HOCKEY PLAYER?
"I think it's true that sports are territorial, although I don't believe that it's a complete thing. I think that my love of cars and just driving them was a big thing with me. Even when I was driving the jalopies and was invited into different divisions of racing I never thought I'd become a professional racecar driver and go to Indianapolis and things like that. I was doing it because that's what I enjoyed doing."
YOU DON'T SEE TOO MANY DRIVERS THESE DAYS THAT GOT STARTED THE WAY YOU DID. HOW DIFFICULT IS IT TO MAKE A CAREER AS A PROFESSIONAL RACECAR DRIVER TODAY?
"I think it was much easier for a racecar driver who had talent back then than it is today. You can have talent, but if you don't get the right breaks it's difficult because there's such a financial obligation today. We have so many more forms of racing today that there's a lot of young talent out there competing against each other, not only on the track, but also competing for sponsorship from other sporting events and other advertising."
WHAT WERE THE GOALS OF THE YOUNG DRIVERS OF YOUR GENERATION?
"I was very fortunate because I won in jalopies before I was invited to run modifies, sprint cars, midgets and stock cars. Actually I came out of stock cars, where I won a lot of races, before I went to Indianapolis, but although I was winning a lot of races I was kind of a big fish in a little pond so to speak. I could've gone to Indianapolis three years before I did but I wanted to make sure that when I went there I would have a real good ride and a good opportunity. When I got over there I found that these guys put their pants on just like I did and were no better than some of the guys I had been racing against. Not that they weren't great but it was just another division, so I that's why I was successful at Indy right from the get go."
YOU DON'T SEE TOO MANY GUYS IN THIS DAY IN AGE DRIVING IN ONE OR TWO DIFFERENT SERIES AT THE SAME TIME. WHEN YOU WERE AN ACTIVE DRIVER, THERE WERE GUYS LIKE A.J. FOYT, MARIO ANDRETTI, DAN GURNEY AND YOURSELF THAT WOULD RACE IN MULTIPLE SERIES. WHY IS THAT?
"We didn't have as many forms of racing. Today the population is so much larger and there's a lot of driving schools and racing series out there, which allow racecar drivers to work their way up to some position. In our day we didn't have driving schools, so we used to simulate a driver that was your hero, which in my case was Troy Rutman. I thought he was the greatest. He was a young guy that started in the back, was very aggressive and he just made a great impression on me when I was young. Today you see these guys come up and they have to be almost specialized. Not only do they have to be specialized; jumping from one car to another requires you to get a great ride. It's difficult for the talent because the cars today have computers on them and the car plays so much of a part in the success of the driver. I mean there's a lot of talented racecar drivers out there but if they don't have the right car they can't prove their talent whatsoever. Back then, basically all the cars were the same. They didn't have a lot of electronics on them and it wasn't such an aerodynamic thing. It was a matter of mechanically setting the cars up chassis-wise and that sort of thing. Today I think it puts the driver more into a specialized position where he has to test, work with the engineers, the aerodynamicists and the whole thing, which really keeps them from jumping around and running a lot of different types of cars. Now I'm not saying that they can't do that, I just think it would be awfully difficult to do.
HAS THAT HURT THE POPULARITY OF AUTO RACING? TODAY'S RACING FANS THAT FOLLOW ONE OR TWO DRIVERS ARE FORCED TO TAKE INTEREST IN JUST ONE SERIES INSTEAD OF DIFFERENT FORMS OF RACING.
"It really does. One of the things that's happened is that with the cars changing there's been a lot of emphasis on road racing, especially with open-wheeled cars, so not only do they race on the ovals, they also do a lot of road racing. This has invited a lot of drivers from other countries that really only do open-wheeled racing to come to this country and be dominant in a lot of ways because they've been raised from their early stages of racing on road circuits. Now you look at racecar drivers from this country, in a lot of cases they've been running a lot of oval races and not doing so many road races, so that's part of the reason why drivers become specialized in what they do."
ALTHOUGH THE SUCCESS OF A DRIVER DEPENDS MOSTLY THEIR DRIVING SKILL, DO TODAY'S DRIVERS HAVE TO BE MORE TECHNICALLY KNOWLEDGEABLE THAN WHEN YOU RACED?
"I think so, although even back then I always prided myself because I used to drive so many different types of cars knowing that if I was going to go from one car to another I better learn the chassis as well. Now it was more of a mechanical thing then, it wasn't so much of an aerodynamic thing and it certainly wasn't an electronic thing like it is today. In today's drivers I think the most successful ones are the ones who can relate and get back to the engineers. To me the engineers today are the most valuable people on the team because they can set the car up both mechanically and aerodynamically. The more that a driver can relate to ... they have debriefings after each session, so it's a communication thing between the two of them. In my day I used to set up my own car. I never was an educated engineer, but I always thought I was a practical engineer, and being able to do that certainly allowed me to do different types of racing. I took pride in knowing that I could set the car up regardless of whether it was a stock car or a sprint car or whatever."
COULD SOMEONE WITH A LOT OF DRIVING SKILL IN TODAY'S ENVIRONMENT SUCCEED WITHOUT A LOT OF TECHNICAL KNOWLEDGE?
"It certainly helps to improve their technical knowledge, however drivers that have great feel for the car and has a car that is set up for them properly is certainly going to be successful. And if they can relate to the engineer, the engineer can carry them. Now whether they can jump from one engineer to another and hit the ball right off the bat, well that's one thing. The more knowledge they have, the easier it'll be for them to jump around. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it."
DO YOU STILL KEEP PRETTY CURRENT ON WHAT'S GOING ON IN AUTO RACING?
"Pretty much so. I'm a fan I guess."
IS THERE ONE FORM YOU FOLLOW MORE THAN ANY OTHER?
"I'm just interested in all of them. I'm interested in what goes on. I'm not happy with everything, but I keep tabs on everything. I go to a lot of the races and the ones I don't I read about in the paper in Monday or watch on Saturday or Sunday, so I pretty much know what's going on."
IS THERE A RACING SERIES OUT THERE TODAY THAT GIVES A TRUE INDICATION OF A DRIVERS SKILL?
"You'd probably have to say the NASCAR races. Now don't get me wrong, there's a tremendous amount of effort put forth by the team and car has to be good. But I think there's a lot of talented drivers out there that because of the equipment being pretty identical in the way they run. That's not saying they win their equal amount of races, but you can see that there's drivers that can run with the best of them out there and maybe they can't win because their whole combination isn't as great."
[PART 2 NEXT WEEK ... PARNELLI JONES will compare drivers of his generation to today's drivers, discuss his experience as a car owner, talk about the differences in speed and technology in today's Champ Cars and lend his thoughts on whether we'll ever see a reunification in open-wheel racing.]