I am a big fan of history, particularly automotive history. In researching many of my past articles you start to see some of the same names popping up. One of those names is Parnelli Jones who showed up all over the place. Whether I was researching the Indy 500 or the Baja 1000, I kept seeing his name. Parnelli Jones could race anything. It didn’t matter if it was stock cars, sprint cars, open-wheel cars, off-road racers, Parnelli was always near the top. He’s raced and won the Indy 500, the Baja 500, the Baja 1000 (twice), Pikes Peak (twice), and the Mint 400. Parnelli is also in seven motorsports hall of fames including the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, the Off-road Motorsports Hall of Fame, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame.
Introduction to Open Wheel Racing
Rufus Parnell Jones was born in 1933 in Arkansas but grew up in Torrance, California. His friend called him Parnelli and that was the name he would use to sneak into racing when he was technically too young to participate. In the 1950’s he raced stock cars, sprint cars, and midgets. After winning the 1960 Midwest Sprint Car championship, he got an offer from J.C. Agajanian to move up to the big leagues. He would move to the USAC Championship Car series (American open-wheel racing) starting his first race at Milwaukee. Parnelli would finish 16th that race but his best finish that season was a second place finish in Sacramento. The 1961 season would fair much better for Jones. He led 27 laps of the Indianapolis 500 netting him Rookie of the Year and he won the last race of the season in Phoenix.
Winning at Indy
Parnelli would improve in the 1962 season taking pole position at Indianapolis. He became the first driver to hit 150 miles per hour at the track. Jones would go on to lead the most laps of the race (120) but was only able to finish 7th. The rest of his season was pretty successful as he racked up a 3rd place finish, four 2nd place finishes, and a win at the Indiana State Fair. This would result in a 3rd place finish in the points behind A.J. Foyt and Roger Ward. Parnelli Jones would again take pole at Indianapolis in 1963. He would go on to lead 167 laps but developed an oil leak late in the race. This allowed the second place Jim Clark to catch Jones but he would hold on for the win. Unfortunately, this would be his only win at Indy as a racing driver.
Parnelli would finish 4th in the points in the 1963 USAC Championship Car series. He would also go on to win the stock car division of the 1963 Pikes Peak Hill Climb in a specially built Mercury Marauder. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, while competing in the Champ Car series, Parnelli also won the 1960, 1961, and 1962 USAC Sprint Car series. He also won the 1964 USAC Stock Car series while taking home two wins in the USAC Championship Car series that same year. In 1967 he would drive the wild STP-Paxton Turbocar pictured above at the Indy 500. The Turbocar wasn’t called that because it had a turbo, instead it had a wild turbine engine. Parnelli qualified 6th and would go on to lead 171 laps. A failed suspension part led to a 6th place finish and the car was subsequently banned. He really could race anything!
Off Road Racing, He Could Do That Too!
In the late 1960’s Parnelli decided to try his hand at off-road racing. His first off-road race was the 2-day Star Dust 7/11 in 1968 over 711 miles in Nevada. Jones had never driven the Ford Bronco-based baja truck until the day of the race. That didn’t stop him from going full blast over the desert until the truck eventually broke. Later that year he would enter the Mexican 1000 (now Baja 1000) and would lead up until the final 150 miles when engine failure pushed him out of the race. In 1970, Parnelli Jones would see some success behind the famous “Big Oly” Bronco. They would win the 1970 Mexican 1000 while also setting a new record. He won the Mexican 1000 again in 1973 as well as the Baja 500, and the Mint 400. A crash in 1974 ended his off-road career.
Not only was Parnelli Jones a prolific racing driver, he was also a successful owner. The Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing team won the Indianapolis 500 in 1970 and 1971. They also won the 1970, 1971, and 1972 USAC National Championships. He even had a Formula 1 team, the Parnelli Formula One team. The great Mario Andretti drove for the team but unfortunately saw little success in the Parnelli VPJ4. From 1974 to 1976 they only scored a total of 6 points with a best ever 4th place finish in Sweden. Parnelli also owned an off-road racing team that took the 1976 SCORE Truck Championship and the 1977 SCORE Class 2 Championship. His racing teams seemed to mimic his diversity in racing success.
Parnelli Jones was one of the most eclectic racing drivers of all-time. Most people never make it to any hall of fames let alone 7. While he doesn’t have the sheer number of wins as someone like a Jim Clark, he’s still notable for all the ways he did win. If you could race it, chances are Parnelli Jones could win in it. He captured wins in Indy Car, various levels of NASCAR, BAJA, Trans Am racing, midget racing, sprint racing, and even hill climbs. Mario Andretti called him the greatest driver of his era. When put on the same track as Jim Clark, widely considered one of the greatest drivers in history, he bested him. Parnelli Jones deserves his spot as one of the best American racing drivers ever.