An interview with: Townsend Bell Parnelli Jones
ADAM SAAL: I would like to say it's my pleasure to introduce both the present generation California-based driving star, as well as a true legend of the sport from California. We're joined today by Mr. Parnelli Jones, who will be participating in the CART Legends promotion at the season-ending Marlboro 500, presented by Toyota early next month. And another driver who will be there, the first CART champion crowned at Indy Lights, Townsend Bell, who joins us today. Townsend is at his home in San Luis Obispo, and Parnelli is at his home at Palos Verdes Estates.
Gentlemen, welcome. Thank you for being with us.
TOWNSEND BELL: Thank you. PARNELLI JONES: Thank you.
ADAM SAAL: Parnelli has raced everything from Champ Cars -- of course he is the 1963 Indy 500 champion, but he reminds me in this call he is the Pikes Peak champion, won the Baja 1000, and the fairly well-known Oly Bronco in the '70s, also the USAC Stock Car Champion in 1964, has won additional stock car championships, and also won the Times Grand Prix at Riverside, again accomplished driver and well-known and true legend of the sport. We're happy to have him on board at this program.
Parnelli, you mentioned this will be your first participation in the Legends Program, which began last year. Good to have you on board. How come you weren't able to participate last year? And secondly, what are you looking forward to doing this year.
PARNELLI JONES: I don't remember. I was out of town somewhere. I couldn't make the race. I wanted to come back and do that. I had planned on doing that and then got called away. This year, they got quite a few things for us to do out there. And of course, Toyota has been a big supporter of auto racing, so they've asked us to do that. And we have an autograph session on Saturday at 9:45 to 10:45, with all the legends. And there are quite a few of them.
ADAM SAAL: Townsend will be racing his DIRECWAY Indy Lights Lola at the season-ending, if not the series-ending race for Indy Lights Sunday morning. I understand you might get behind the wheel of a car at Fontana as well. Can you tell us about that.
PARNELLI JONES: Yes, we built the rest of my winning '63 Indy car, and we're kind of anxious to run it. We've never run it since it's been built. It's absolutely gorgeous. It's identical to my winning car, so we're working on getting all the fluids in it and everything else, and we'll probably take it out there and run it hopefully.
ADAM SAAL: Townsend, maybe we can get you behind the wheel of a Calhoun replica. If you want to try that as well. It might be worth looking at.
Townsend has raced in Champ Car competitions this year. He finished both the European rounds in his positive debut with Visteon Patrick racing. Scored his first championship point in his second start in England, and then he promptly went back to the Indy Lights Championship and finished at Road Atlanta and then clinched the championship with his fourth flag-to-flag victory of the season. His fifth in total this year. Wrapped it up one race early. It has to be a good feeling.
Townsend, how important was it to you to wrap up the championship before you headed back to Fontana?
TOWNSEND BELL: The most important thing for me was to go out and win that race in Laguna Seca rather than to sit down and try to work out all the various possibilities on the points. I knew if I won the race, I would win the championship, and it was a race I very much wanted to win. I hadn't won there in four years since I started doing the Skip Barber School Series. So that meant a lot to me.
Going into Fontana without the championship wrapped up would not have been ideal at all, because the Super Speedway Races and the Indy Lights car is really more of a drafting battle. Anything can happen there. It's a very exciting race and very close, but it's tough to have much control over the situation. So I was really relieved at some level and very pleased at the same time to win not only the race, but the championship a race early.
ADAM SAAL: To clarify my own vague reference, you will only be racing in Indy Lights this weekend. There was a thought that you might get behind the wheel of a Champ Car again this season, but that hasn't happened. You needed to focus on the Indy Lights Championship and that was taken care of.
Are you also looking to protect your rookie status, in case you do step up next year.
TOWNSEND BELL: Yes. From what I understand you can run two CART races before you lose your rookie status. And as the rules currently stand, CART allocates additional testing dates for rookies. Certainly it's my advantage if we can maintain that rookie status if we end up running CART next year.
ADAM SAAL: At this time we would like to open it up for questions.
Q. P.J., two questions. Tell everybody a little bit about when you got started back here and drivers didn't have 401-Ks and insurance programs and all these things, and you went ahead and built a nice empire in the tire business. You've been able to enjoy life and make good investments. Who were the people that really helped guide you when you were getting started and you broke out as a race car driver?
PARNELLI JONES: Actually, I had won a lot of races before I went back east, out in California. I could have gone to Indianapolis a couple of years before I did, but I waited until I had an opportunity to get a real good ride and of course that came with J.C. Aganian (Aggie), who fathered me a great deal because -- I don't know, he had a son about my age and lost him in a swimming pool and I always felt like he thought I was his son.
Anyway, he was really instrumental with me and he prepared me with an opportunity to have good equipment and a good mechanic in Johnny Pohlson. Anyway, I also came back here with my Sprint car and obviously we had very good success with that. We won the Midwest Championship the first year and came back and won the National Championship two years in a row. At that point I was pretty well on my way.
Q. Did Aggie guide you as far as good investments when you were younger to put your money into land, or was he kind of the guiding light businesswise too?
PARNELLI JONES: Yes, Aggie did that very much so. First of all, Troy Ruttman had won Indianapolis earlier in 1952 for Aganian. And of course Aggie told me all the stories, because Troy Ruttman was my hero. He was one of the first guys I seen win a race. He was a young, big, burly guy that started in the back and won the race. And from that moment on he was kind of my hero, and the fact he had driven for Aggie.
And Aggie tried to help him invest his money and he didn't want to do that and he partied a lot and spent all his money. I got to meet Troy later and he said, "Don't do what I did." He said get yourself a good accountant and good attorney and invest your money and stuff like that. And of course Aggie, as well, did the same thing, and Aggie helped me. We would go out and buy some real estate and make down payments on it. He always assured me if I couldn't make the payments, if I got hurt or something like that, he would certainly protect my investments.
Also I had my other partner, Vel Melitich, who I later started a tire business with and started driving for him earlier in the stock cars, and he was also very instrumental in helping me financially, especially later, and I became his partner. And of course we had a lot of successes with our race team as well.
Q. My second question was, give us an update on how Page is doing. We know he was supposed to get married. And talk about how good his future was in racing but how happy you are that he's still with us.
PARNELLI JONES: Actually, Page really made me proud of him as a race driver. He won a lot of races. The year before he got hurt, in '93, I think he won 18 out of 42 races. He was actually leading the race when he got hurt. He got upside down with his car and the guy running second run into the top of him and gave him a head injury and we didn't know he was going to live the first three or four days.
Anyway, he's come back a long ways. He just recently got married in April of this year, and he's doing quite well. He actually works a little bit for his father-in-law. He still does some therapy and also does a little work around our shop.
ADAM SAAL: Townsend, I would like to ask you a question before we go on to our other media guests.
In your relatively brief career to date, who has been the influential people to get you on the right track, similar to some of the individuals that Parnelli just mentioned.
TOWNSEND BELL: I would say Ayrton Senna is certainly near or at the top of that list. I was just thinking about that, listening to Mr. Jones talk. And I would have to say that a few of the things that I saw Greg Moore do on the race track were pretty inspirational and so a couple of those guys would jump out at me.
Q. There's been a lot of rumors about you moving up to Champ cars next year. When do you think this kind of announcement would be made? What time frame?
TOWNSEND BELL: Well, I certainly hope to be racing in the CART series next year. Those sort of announcements and decisions aren't really something that I influence or decide, so your guess is as good as mine. I sort of wait to do what I'm told, and hopefully we'll be able to make some announcements to my plans next year in a short time. I would think maybe some time after Fontana, but we'll just have to wait and see. I really don't know.
Q. You drove two Champ Car races this year. You tested it a couple of times. And you also recently drove the Road Atlanta track. There's been discussion over the years about CART some day racing at the Road Atlanta track. What are your impressions of a Champ Car on the Road Atlanta track? Is that a track conducive to those cars?
TOWNSEND BELL: I think it would be outstanding. Road Atlanta definitely is one of my favorite racing tracks. There's some very fast corners. Turn one in Road Atlanta is the fastest road course corner I believe on the Indy Lights schedule. I know it is on the Indy Lights schedule. It's different than the kink at Road America, which in miles an area is faster, but there's a lot more going on at turn one at Road Atlanta. And I think it would be a perfect venue.
The sports cars are running there, the Audis and top prototype cars are probably somewhere in between on pace of the Indy Lights car and the Champ car. I think it would be a great track.
My concern is it was a bit dirty off line there because you can drop tires in the dirt in some places. With a little bit of work on curving and the grass and those sorts of things, I think it would be an outstanding venue.
Q. Do you feel there were passing opportunities?
TOWNSEND BELL: Yes. The straightaway there is pretty long and there is a very slow corner leading on to the long straightaway, so most of the grip in that slow corner is going to come mechanically, so you can get very close to the car in front of you coming off that corner and there is quite a good tow heading down to the next left-hander, which there is a large braking area from very high speeds. So that combination always makes for good passing.
Q. I have a question for Parnelli. You were in Indy cars many years ago when it was one series. Looking at the situation we have today with IRL and CART and the split, how do you feel about all that, where the sport is now? Is it depressing to you, or do you think it's good to have two series? How do you feel?
PARNELLI JONES: Actually, I don't know that one series could satisfy all the race circuits around. Here you have CART going overseas and Canada. They have eight races out of this country right now. And again, and a few road circuits in this country, as well. And then IRL, being basically for the ovals, it really takes two series to do that.
However, you know, we started out with a big fight and that didn't set the tone very well. And the thing about open-wheel racing in this country, we have to be entertaining to compete against racing like NASCAR. And I think open-wheel racing is suffering a great deal because of the fact NASCAR is so entertaining. And Indy car racing, I know some of the best races I've seen is Indy Lights cars at Fontana, for example, where they're changing positions. And of course, the CART race was obviously great at Michigan this year. And then the same with the IRL race at another track. And that's what I'm kind of getting at, the fact that we have to compete with entertainment. And I think we need to work with these series more. And again, I don't think there is one series that could handle all the opportunities for all the race tracks.
ADAM SAAL: As a way of following up, the Legends Program was designed to take the obvious politics in our sport, put them aside for a weekend, and bring together the legends of the sport at a season-ending race, where you can focus on racing, not on what's going on off the track. And I think we were able to accomplish that last year. If you could put it all aside for one weekend and get everybody together and talk about how great you were -- and they were talking quite a bit about you, Parnelli, being part of the event..
PARNELLI JONES: We're like a big family racing, anyway. We're like brothers and everything else. We fight amongst ourselves sometimes, but obviously we have a lot of respect for each other and we certainly participate in a lot of things like this. I'm proud to be part of it. Thank you.
ADAM SAAL: It's good to have you on board this year. We're looking forward to some good bench racing. Maybe Robin will probably want to be a fly on the wall in some of those meetings.
Q. The question for Parnelli was regarding his racing Trans Am. He had a lot of fun at the Monterey Historics in his old car. Will he be doing any more of that?
PARNELLI JONES: As far as the Trans Am thing, the vintage car thing, I probably will. It's a lot of fun, not too serious. As long as it fits with my schedule, I love doing it, getting a chance to go out and play with a lot of these guys. And I think the reason a lot of these vintage car races are so popular right now is because the guys can physically get in there and work on them and everything and they don't have all the computers on them and the debriefing after the race and that sort of thing. It's more like it used to be, so to speak.
Q. The way you were racing with Follmer, it looked like you were taking it pretty seriously.
PARNELLI JONES: Any time I get in a car, you know, I guess I take it pretty seriously. I'm very competitive and that's probably what compelled me a great deal in my racing career. I can't stand to lose, although I do get beat occasionally.
Q. Well, it was a great race.
PARNELLI JONES: We had a good time.
Q. Parnelli, do a lot of people want you for speaking engagements? This Cobra thing might be fun. Mario is hoping you're one of the guys he's going to be racing against.
PARNELLI JONES: He wants to whip on me, huh? (Laughs.)
Q. The one thing about it is you probably have an advantage. Your eyes are still pretty good. Right away you're going to have a little advantage.
About speaking engagements, just talk about your business interests now, what are you doing to stay active and what you're involved in racingwise.
PARNELLI JONES: Actually, first of all, I endorse a product call Roll-Guard. It's a new product that goes on the rear springs of a lot of cars and it keeps the stability of them a lot better so that they don't get upside down and then also I endorse a tire, which is a recreational tire. It's an off-road tire. It's a tire that's got my initials in it. And believe it or not, it's very quiet and gives tremendous traction. So everybody is really high on the tire. But anyway, outside of that, I've accumulated some commercial real estate over the years. I sold my tire stores. I had 45 tire stores and I sold them a few years ago and accumulated some commercial real estate. I'm trying to say I'm semi-retired, but it seems like I'm busy all the time. I'm trying to get my handicap down, so I am playing a little golf.
Q. One of the greatest compliments I ever heard was A.J. Watson said one time that Parnelli Jones was without a doubt the best Indy 500 driver of all time. That says a lot for a guy like Watson, who won so many races and saw so many errors. Was it the kind of thing that you just immediately felt comfortable with Indianapolis? How do you explain why you were just so good there?
PARNELLI JONES: I think the real thing that really helped me a great deal was, first of all, having a good car and a good team, too, but was the fact that I went there the year before with Jim Hurtibise and he qualified the fastest qualifier on the second weekend. And later I watched the film and watched what he did and I kind of picked up on it. So later, when I got a chance to do some -- after my rookie year, I got a chance to do some tire testing, and I started working on what I had seen with him, and that helped me a great deal. And that was the fact I could run my car a little bit looser and not so tight that I was able to come off the corners a little bit harder, and I think that helped me a great deal. I don't know. I like the race track. It had four different turns. Even though they were similar, they were different, and the track fit me well.
ADAM SAAL: Townsend Bell, thank you for joining us today. Good luck in the season-ending race at Fontana early next month.
And Parnelli, we look forward to seeing you there, too. And again, I'm going to try to get in on some of this bench racing that you guys are going to be talking about.