IRL: Indy 500 Parade of Champions: Parnelli Jones

PARNELLI JONES ENJOYED RAPID RISE AT INDIANAPOLIS INDIANAPOLIS, May 9, 1998 -- Parnelli Jones enjoyed a mercurial Indy 500 career during the 1960s, becoming the first driver to qualify above 150 mph, winning once and shocking the staid...

PARNELLI JONES ENJOYED RAPID RISE AT INDIANAPOLIS

INDIANAPOLIS, May 9, 1998 -- Parnelli Jones enjoyed a mercurial Indy 500 career during the 1960s, becoming the first driver to qualify above 150 mph, winning once and shocking the staid racing fraternity by nearly pulling off a second victory in Andy Granatelli's controversial turbine-powered car.

Parnelli drove at Indy for two of the most colorful car owners in history -- J.C. Agajanian and Granatelli.

"Aggie was a wonderful guy," Jones said. "I was a practical engineer. I learned to set up my own cars because I drove so many. Aggie gave me a free hand. I was practically running the team. He would build my confidence. He patted me on the back and gave me hugs."

Jones will be saluted at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, May 10, as part of the weeklong Parade of Champions tribute to former Indy champions. Fans at IMS will get a nostalgic flashback as the champions drive their storied championship machines from years past in laps of honor around the 2½-mile oval. Jones will drive will drive "Calhoun," the front-engine car fielded by the late Agajanian that he drove to a 1963 victory.

Each champion will also sign autographs in FanFest, a free, interactive racing entertainment area located next to the Hall of Fame Museum.

Parnelli (actually his name is Parnell, but it became Parnelli in the press and stayed that way) brought mechanic Johnny Poulesen along, and they were a team during the six years that Jones drove for Aggie. Jones' first year at Indy was 1961. He qualified fifth and finished 12th.

In May 1962, Parnelli stunned the racing world and captured the pole at what then was thought the ultimate Indy speed of 150.370.

"When you're a rookie coming up and you're able to do something that had not been done before, it brought us out of a hole," Parnelli said. "One of my biggest thrills was when I was a rookie, and I run by Jim Rathmann. He had won the race in 1960 and I said, 'How was I able to do that?'"

Jones believes he should have won the race four years in a row. He took the lead in his rookie year only to have the engine go sour. The next year he says he was "long gone" when the car lost its brakes. He won in 1963. He said bluntly that in 1964 he could have handled eventual winner A.J. Foyt when he again lost his brakes.

"That was the end of 'Calhoun,'" he said.

Old Calhoun was the special name Jones used to refer to his No. 98 roadster.

Parnelli made his final charge toward a second victory in 1967, driving the turbine for Granatelli. Speed on the straightaways was great, but the car lacked throttle response when it dove into the turns. Jones qualified only sixth and was accused of "sandbagging." And it appeared that way when he swept into the lead on the first lap and drove away from the field. He still denies the "sandbagging" charge today.

"There were 3 1/2 laps to go and I was taking it easy," he ruefully recalled about falling out of the race within sniffing distance of victory. "I was not the smartest driver in the world. I was more Mario's (Andretti) type (a charger) than Al's (Unser) type (a pacer).

"Look at (Lloyd) Ruby, he should have won. Jerry Grant should have won. You've got to have luck. Foyt had some."

A $5 piece broke, and the red "whoosh mobile" coasted to a stop. Parnelli wound up sixth as Foyt snatched the lead and went on to win for the third time. It also was the end to Parnelli's Indy career as a driver although neither Jones nor anyone else realized it at the time.

Troy Ruttman was Jones' idol. The 1952 Indy 500 winner had advised Parnelli to get a good accountant and take care of business. During his time with Agajanian, he invested his money wisely, purchasing California property such as orange groves.

Then a Firestone division store became available, but it was given to Mickey Thompson instead of Jones. This infuriated Parnelli, who threatened to switch to Goodyears on the racing circuit. Granatelli wanted Parnelli to drive the same turbine car in 1968 against the new wedge-designed cars. Jones didn't believe the car was safe.

"It seemed like everything was telling me 'don't do it,'" he said. "I was thinking toward the end of the '67 race that winning would not be as thrilling as the first time. So I said, I'm just going to quit."

Firestone, meanwhile, relented and gave the division dealership to Jones. He worked hard at developing it and at one point had 20,000 tires on back order. Then he became partners with Ford dealer Vel Miletich and purchased a retail store. They hired a pair of young, aggressive managers, and it flourished. Soon Jones and Miletich were purchasing more stores until the total reached 45.

They also formed what became known as the Indy "super team" in the early 1970s while Parnelli continued to drive in Trans Am and off-road competition. Al Unser won back-to-back races in the Johnny Lightning Special entered at Indy by the Vel's Parnelli team, but Jones said the excitement of winning wasn't the same as when he was driving. Jones today is involved with Bobby and Al Unser Sr. and Johnny Rutherford in corporate instruction of driving a racecar.

In the 1980s, sons P.J. and Page became teen-agers. Parnelli did not want them to become drivers, but once made the mistake of betting his younger son, Page, he couldn't make a difficult pool shot. The wager involved a trip to a Las Vegas race and purchase of a go-kart. Page, naturally, converted the shot. Racing careers were launched.

Page suffered a severe head injury in a USAC sprint car accident at Eldora (Ohio) Speedway on Sept. 25, 1994. Page has shown vast improvement but still requires regular rehabilitation therapy.

And despite all of his success during his driving career, Parnelli says, "I'd give it all back" to have Page fully recover from his injuries.

"My biggest disappointment in racing was when Page got hurt," Parnelli said. "We've got him back bowling, but he won't race again. He lives at home. That first six months was terrible. I would just cry every time I would think about it. Page was such a good driver. He was so nice. He would go up in the stands and talk to old ladies. Things like that make it worse. His friends have been so great with his recovery. They still come and take him out to dinner."

Page is coming to Indy for the race this year. Parnelli will be here on his special day but then will fly to the Bahamas for a week to participate in an event involving Rincon, which did conversion work on the Ford van that was provided for Page. The senior Jones then will return for the race.

P.J. today drives for Dan Gurney on the CART circuit in a Toyota.

Source: IRL/IMS

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Dan Gurney , Al Unser Sr. , Parnelli Jones , A.J. Foyt , Johnny Rutherford , Al Unser