This Week in Ford Racing October 30, 2001 CART FedEx Championship Series Part II 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 drove.
This Week in Ford Racing October 30, 2001
CART FedEx Championship Series
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 drove. 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, October 13th and 14th in Dearborn, Michigan, Jones about the differences in speed and technology in today's Champ Cars and lends his thoughts on whether we'll ever see a reunification in open-wheel racing in part two of a two-part interview.
PARNELLI JONES - 1963 Indianapolis 500 champion
HAS THE PROGRESSION OF TECHNOLOGY HURT RACING? DOES THE AMOUNT OF TECHNOLOGY IN TODAY'S CARS REDUCE THE IMPORTANCE OF THE DRIVER?
"I certainly think so. I think it's a crying shame that we have some of the technology. Don't get me wrong, I think it's great, but you take the Formula One cars where they have hundred million dollar budgets and you see all the technology and all the money they spend just to save a pound here and there. I think it takes a great deal away from it. I think it's interesting to see that side of it; however, I think it's taken a great deal away from the racing. I think it was much better when the mechanic and the driver could sit down and do their thing with maybe some aerodynamic changes, but this electronic thing has grown so rapidly and so fast that it's changed a great deal. And I don't it's been for the better, however one reason NASCAR is so successful is that it tries to make every car the same. They don't allow them to run any electronic equipment on them when they're racing, although they do a tremendous amount of electronic stuff when they're testing."
BASED PURELY ON SKILL, HOW DO YOU THINK TODAY'S DRIVERS WOULD MEASURE UP TO DRIVERS THAT YOU RACED AGAINST.
"First of all, there were a few drivers that were great back in the '50's and '60's, and today there's a lot of them, but there are a lot of reasons for that. There are so many different forms of racing today, and we have driving schools to get them there, so I think there's more great race-car drivers today than there were back then simply because there's more types of racing and more opportunities for drivers to show their skills. The ones that are great, the luckiest and who put together the best combinations are the ones that excel."
DO YOU THINK YOU WOULD BE COMPETITIVE IN TODAY'S RACING ENVIRONMENT, SAY IN CART?
"I think I would be. Not today I wouldn't be (laughing), but I think in my day I would've. I won my percentage of races when I was racing, so I think I would be. There were a few race-car drivers that ran then certainly would've been competitive, I mean even some before my time there were some really talented racers, but it's such a different world now. I call it an electronic world while back then it was a mechanical thing. Today the tires are better, the horsepower is better, I mean look at the amount of power that they get out of the same sized engine that we used. Course I also think that high-speed cornering is much more difficult to negotiate than low-speed cornering. I mean you go into a low-speed corner and you can lose the car a little bit and drive off while keeping yourself intact, but you lose the car in a high-speed corner and it's 'hello' wall. Being able to finesse the car and maximize its speed through a high-speed corner requires a lot more talent."
YOU WON THE POLE AT THE 1963 INDIANAPOLIS 500 IN AN AVERAGE SPEED OF 150 MILES PER HOUR. LAST YEAR AT THE CALIFORNIA SPEEDWAY GIL DE FERRAN CLAIMED THE POLE IN AN AVERAGE SPEED OF CLOSE TO 242 MILES PER HOUR. WOULD YOU WANT TO RACE AT THOSE SPEEDS?
"I would not want to race at those speeds. I think the aerodynamics are playing a part in making good races, I mean it helps in some cases and hurts in some others. For example you take the Indy Lights races that run on the same tracks like Fontana, they put on a great show because they run a big wing on the car and they create a lot of drafting. With some of the other cars they get so they can't even draft because the aerodynamics spoils the air for the car behind it. I think the IRL has a similar situation with the bigger wings, more downforce and not quite as much power, which creates a little more drafting. But the bottom line in racing is that we have to look at entertainment. If you're not entertained, the rest of the stuff really doesn't count. And because open-wheeled racing has to compete with the likes of NASCAR, which is very entertaining, we have to look at that and try to make ourselves more entertaining and less about engineering. We need to engineer the cars so they can race and can draft and make for a good show, I mean if you look at a Formula One race, they get strung out and they're not very entertaining."
BEING THE FIRST DRIVER TO BREAK THE 150-MPH BARRIER AT INDY, I'LL BET YOU THOUGHT YOU WERE GOING PRETTY FAST. BUT WHAT IF SOMEONE TOLD YOU WHEN YOU GOT OUT OF THE CAR THAT SOMEONE CLOSE TO 40 YEARS FROM NOW WOULD BE GOING ALMOST 100 MILES AN HOUR FASTER? YOU MUST'VE THOUGHT THAT YOU WERE REALLY MOVING.
"Well I was for the type of car I was driving. I only had a five- or six-inch wide tire, while today drivers have a tremendously wide tire now made from much better compounds than we had then. We had about 450 horsepower, I think, and today they've got probably 825 horsepower, which is a big difference for qualifying. They've also got more aerodynamics and downforce without much drag because they're ground effects cars that create a vacuum beneath it so it can high-speed corner so much faster. But like I said earlier, I found out those guys put their pants on the same way and I'd like to have seen them take out one of those cars and see how well they drove them. A lot of the race cars today, not the open-cockpit cars, have power steering now. In our day you had to be much more physical than you do in today's driving. Not so much in Indy cars but in most of the other cars."
SO WHEN YOU DID YOUR 150-MPH LAP AT INDY IT WAS PURELY WITH MECHANICAL GRIP AND JUST GRAB THE WHEEL AND HANG ON.
"Well, you slipped the car a little bit in the corners, but not too much obviously."
BUT TODAY'S DRIVERS ACHIEVE THOSE SPEEDS USING A LOT OF AERODYNAMIC GRIP.
"Well you know when somebody can flat foot a car around a corner ... if everybody can flat foot a car around a corner, how do you distinguish one great driver from another? I'm not saying that isn't the case, but its at least part of it. It doesn't take a lot of talent to flat foot a car through a corner that some other driver maybe with less talent couldn't do the same thing."
HAS THE INDIANAPPOLIS 500 LOST ITS LUSTRE AND IMPORTANCE?
"I think it had a little dip there, but I think it's coming back. I've always said that Tony George has more invested than anybody else, so if the Indy 500 has lost any of its lustre it's because a lot of other races have gained some. There are so many forms of racing out there, especially on that weekend, but grandstands and the infield are still full. It's a happening and I don't think it'll every be completely hurt."
HOW IMPORTANT TO YOU PERSONALLY WAS IT TO WIN THE INDY 500 IN 1963, ESPECIALLY SINCE YOU SAT ON THE POLE THE YEAR BEFORE AND DIDN'T WIN.
"The year before in 1962 when I first broke 150 (mph), I was leading the race long-gone and it was a race I should've won."
YOU HAD A BRAKE PROBLEM, RIGHT?
"Yeah, I lost the brakes. I just had everybody handled great. Course in '63 I came back and pretty much had the same thing. I did have a little problem with an oil leak in the end and they were thinking about black-flagging me, but I didn't know that while I was driving. Racing has been good to me and I've won my share. Percentage-wise, I probably won more than anybody in the short time I was there. I won 25 USAC sprint car races, 25 midget races I think, 15 or so stock car races and six Indy car races, although I should've won 20 Indy car races. I was leading a lot of those where I just broke, so I don't know what to say other than I was as good as there was in my day. I had a lot of self-confidence in myself, and today I think race-car drivers have to have a lot of self-confidence and need to build on that by winning races."
DID YOU PREFER DRIVING A PARTICULAR CAR OR IN A PARTICULAR SERIES?
"I'm the kind of guy that likes to see what's on the other side of the hill, so when I had an opportunity to go drive something else I jumped at it. I remember Ford wanted me to go to Pikes Peak and I went to see what that was like. So I went out there and won Pikes Peak a couple of times in stock car division and enjoyed it. I wouldn't want to keep on doing it, but I wanted to go try it. At times you enjoy what you're doing, but sometimes you get to a point where you've been successful at it and you want to go try something else, not that you dislike doing it. It just seems sometimes the grass is a little greener so let's go try that. Bill Straup, whom I drove for in the stock car division, wanted me to do the Baja races and I didn't particularly want to do that. Well then he said, 'You probably aren't man enough to do that,' so he conned me into doing it. But when I went down there and did it. I enjoyed it so much because it was a recreational thing and I was doing it for myself and not so much for anybody else, so I really enjoyed that."
DID YOU DO A LOT OF ROAD RACING?
"I didn't do a lot, but I won some stock car races on a road circuit and I won the Times' Grand Prix in a sports car at Riverside for Shelby. I was leading a few other races too, Las Vegas and Riverside, but I broke down."
DID YOU ENJOY ROAD RACING?
"Oh yeah. As a matter of fact, when I went road racing I took to it like a duck to water, so it just came very easy to me."
WHAT'S KEEPING YOU BUSY THESE DAYS?
"I had a chain of 45 tire stores that I sold seven or eight years ago. They kept my name on them for awhile, but then they sold them off four or five at a time. I've accumulated some commercial real estate over the years so we operate our business now. That way I get a chance to do a lot of things that I couldn't do before."
HAVE YOU EVER HAD THE URGE TO GET BACK INTO RACING AT SOME LEVEL?
"Well when Firestone got out back when I was a car owner, they took quite a bit of our subsidy and we were spending quite a bit of our own money to keep it going. We wanted to get back in, but we never could quite get the right sponsorship so we wouldn't be spending so much money. But we won, I think, 56 Indy car races, and as matter of fact two of the cars that I have in my collection are the two Johnny Lightning cars that we won back-to-back in '70 and '71."
WHEN DID YOU GET OUT OF INDY CARS?
"Well, we had a Formula One program with Mario (Andretti) for one year as well. Then (A.J.) Foyt drove our car in '75 or '76, and that's about the time we got out or racing and never got back in."
IT MUST'VE BEEN A CHALLENGE TO BUILD YOUR OWN CHASSIS?
"Yeah. We were actually pretty creative. We were the first ones to bring a decent truck to the track because we had Mario and Al (Unser) and Joe Leonard driving for us. We were also the first ones to bring radio communications to the track for our team with Motorola. Nowadays you have to have both, a decent truck and radios (laughing)."
WOULD YOU WANT TO OWN A RACE TEAM AGAIN?
"No, I don't think so. The whole thing is in disarray right now as far as open-wheel racing is concerned. I don't want to do that anymore. We've done that and there's a lot of pressure. I go to the races with my son to see him drive, so when the car breaks down or it's ill-handling, it's so disappointing. It's so much of a downer for me, although it's fine if everything's going great. Racing has its ups and downs, and the ups are much greater than the downs, so it can be enjoyable."
WOULD IT BE FAIR TO SAY THAT YOU AND YOUR PEERS RACED BECAUSE OF YOUR LOVE OF THE SPORT, WHILE TODAY'S RACING ENVIRONMENT HAS TAKEN ON A MORE CORPORATE FEEL?
"I don't know. For me it wasn't as enjoyable as a car owner as a driver, but it was enjoyable when our car won and we had some great times. I know that most of the car owners today did it because they enjoy what they're doing, but they also made a business out of it. And it's just like anything else, success breeds success and failure breeds failure. The top teams are getting all the big sponsors while the lesser teams, the guys who haven't been as successful, are getting less and less."
DO YOU FORSEE A RECONCILIATION BETWEEN THE OPEN-WHEELED SANCTIONING BODIES IN THE NEAR FUTURE?
"Yes, I do, I really do. (CART President & CEO) Joe Heitzler sees the entertainment value and would probably be one of the guys to bring this thing back together. I think in the best interests of open-wheel racing is that CART would get the same engine formula that the IRL has, which would certainly put them in the right direction. So I think there is hope. I mean if the two sides were to get together we'd have so many races, especially with CART going out of the country and all the high-banked oval tracks. It's difficult for one organization to run 30-some races, so there's got to be room for them. If they can get their engine programs and their cars similar then it would be in the best interest of both."
WHO DO YOU THINK ARE AMONG THE BEST OPEN-WHEELED DRIVERS IN THE UNITED STATES RIGHT NOW, PARTICULARLY IN CART?
"They're all good drivers, but I think Kenny Brack is probably one of the best drivers in the series, in my opinion. Certainly Michael (Andretti) is a great driver, and there are plenty more over there who have plenty of talent, so it's hard for me to pick out any individuals."
WHAT MIGHT ONE OF THESE GUYS SAY AFTER TAKING A RUN AROUND INDIANAPOLIS IN THE 1963 CAR THAT YOU WON THE RACE IN? IF YOU TOLD THEM TO RUN FOUR LAPS AROUND INDY IN THAT CAR, WHAT DO YOU THINK THEY'D SAY WHEN THEY GOT OUT?
"I would imagine that they would be shocked (laughing). To tell you the truth, I was shocked, I mean you're talking about a long time ago. A couple of years ago I drove my car around the track, slowly, but I was thinking, 'Oh my God, I can't believe how antiquated this thing is.'"
LOOKING BACK OVER YOUR CAREER, ARE THERE ANY ACHIEVEMENTS THAT STAND OUT WHICH YOU ARE ESPECIALLY PROUD OF?
"Well, you've go to understand that I was proud to go to Indianapolis in the first place because the Indy 500 is the Super Bowl of automobile racing. (It) still is and was even more so then, at least it was to me, and my ambition was to go there and race and do well. I went there and was Rookie of the Year and led the race in my first race, could've won the race if I hadn't lost a cylinder. I came back the next year in 1962 and was the first driver to run faster than 150 miles per hour, which was a big, big thrill because everybody had come so close but nobody had done it, so it was a big moment in my life. And then to come back in 1963 and win the race just was an unbelieveable thing. I felt then that I had reached my goal, and it was a really big thrill for me. As a matter of fact I woke up during the middle of the night and ran into the bathroom to look in the mirror to see if I was dreaming (laughing), so it's that kind of thing. I mean, I come from a poor family, not that I went with ragged clothes or anything like that. But to come from where I started to where I am now, my life in racing has been pretty good to me except for my younger son getting hurt in racing. That's what he wanted to do ... that's what all race-car drivers want to do. They love the race, we all do."
DID YOU EVER CONSIDER GOING TO RACE IN EUROPE? LE MANS? FORMULA ONE?
"I gave it a little bit of a thought. In 1964 I won a couple of races in (Colin) Chapman's Lotus at Milwaukee and Trenton (NJ), and Chapman wanted me to come and be the number two driver to Jimmy Clark, and I didn't feel like I was number two to anybody so that kind of blew the deal. Partially because I don't think Formula One had the prestige then that it does today and it didn't seem to be that great. I was having trouble finishing races and had broken down in a lot of Indy car races, so I figured that I'm going to go over there, spend a year learning the tracks, I didn't enjoy being away from home, so I said no thanks."
DO YOU REGRET NOT GOING?
"Yes and no. I have some regrets, but on the other hand I think their racing was very dangerous then too. A lot of their race drivers ... we always joke and say Chapman, if something broke on the car, he'd say make the rest of it lighter. He was a great engineer and certainly very talented for his time, but I think the cars were pretty fragile that he built."