Rufus “Parnelli” Jones’ career at the Indianapolis 500 lasted from just 1961-67. But he is revered as one of the greatest racers in the history of the Memorial Day classic.
Jones moved to Torrance, California when he was a child and adopted the moniker ‘Parnelli’ in an attempt to keep his racing exploits a secret from his parents. After rising through the west coast ranks of stock cars, midgets and sprint cars, Jones was discovered by Indy car team owner JC Agajanian.
Parnelli qualified fifth in 1961 for his Indianapolis debut and ran among the leaders until he dropped back to finish 12th after being smashed in the face by a stone. It was enough to claim “Rookie of the Year” honors.
Jones took pole position for the 1962 500 and led 120 laps. But the exhaust pipe burned through one of his Watson roadster’s brake lines and Jones had to nurse it to a seventh place finish.
Jones recalled the 1962 race in his biography: “I’d be screaming into a corner and I’d be telling myself, ‘You can do it! You have more guts than anyone! You don’t have to hit the brakes!’”
Without a radio, Jones had to communicate the brake problem to his crew verbally by making a slow drive through the pits. They set up a makeshift tire wall that enabled him to make a minimal number of pit stop for tires and fuel.
A second consecutive Indianapolis pole led to Jones’ victory in the 1963 ‘500.’ Parnelli led 167 laps, including the final 105. But the win was shrouded in controversy.
The reserve oil tank of Jones’ car (nicknamed ‘Ol Calhoun) developed a leak near the top, and oil could be seen streaked on the tail of the car and smoking as it touched the hot exhaust pipe. But before chief steward Harlan Fengler displayed the black flag, the leak stopped when the oil dropped below the crack. Jones won by 33.84 seconds over Jim Clark in a rear-engine Lotus.
“Sure, I dropped oil, but so did a lot of guys,” Jones later said. “Where do you draw the line? The officials have to decide, and they can’t always call you in to check.”
Jones made his final Indianapolis start in Calhoun in 1964, qualifying fifth but finishing 23rd after the car’s fuel tank caught fire in the pits.
Like the majority of the field, Jones was in a rear engine car for the 1965 ‘500.’ He again qualified fifth and finished second behind Clark, who scored the first rear-engine victory. Jones started fourth and finished 14th in 1966.
For 1967, Jones signed to drive a unique turbine powered car for STP magnate Andy Granatelli. Jones qualified on the outside of Row 2 but was accused of sandbagging to hide the car’s true potential. That potential was apparent when Jones drove around the outside of the field to take the lead in Turn 2 on the opening lap.
Jones and the turbine car led 171 laps of the 1967 ‘500.’ But in a legendary bit of Indianapolis lore, a $6 ball bearing failed, leading to a total loss of drive in the radical machine.
The 1967 Indianapolis 500 was Jones’ last Indy car race. He continued driving, however, winning the Baja 1000 off road race several times as well as the 1970 SCCA Trans-Am championship.
Jones also remained involved in Indy car racing as a team owner, scoring 53 wins. Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing originated the 3-car superteam concept by fielding Mario Andretti alongside Joe Leonard and Al Unser in 1972-73. Unser won the 1970 USAC championship and the 1970 and ’71 Indianapolis 500 for the team, while Leonard was USAC champion in 1971 and ’72.
Jones’ record of six Indy car and four NASCAR wins doesn’t reflect his contemporary status in the sport. He was the man many of his rivals feared most.
“As far as I’m concerned, Parnelli Jones was the greatest driver of his era,” said Mario Andretti. “He had aggressiveness and also a finesse that no one else possessed. And he won with everything he put his hands on, including off road.”
“He was possibly one of the toughest guys ever in racing,” added four time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti. “He looks like he’s made out of granite. I’m glad I didn’t have to race against him because he looks like he could completely kick the ass of anyone I’ve ever met. I know he would have definitely kicked my ass!”
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