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Parnelli: Unser-Bignotti Pairing Helped Johnny Lightning Special Jolt Indy Field in 1970

Note: This is the final installment of a series of feature stories highlighting historic milestones and anniversaries honored in 2020 leading up to Legends Day presented by Firestone.

 

Al Unser dominated the 1970 Indianapolis 500 like few drivers in history, leading 190 of 200 laps en route to victory in the famed Johnny Lightning Special P.J. Colt-Ford car.

 

Only Billy Arnold (198 laps in 1930), Ralph De Palma (196 laps in 1912) and Bill Vukovich (195 laps in 1953) have led more laps in a single edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” with Jim Clark tying Unser’s laps led in 1965.

There’s no doubt Unser’s sublime talent behind the wheel helped to create one of the most dominant days in Indianapolis 500 history. But his team co-owner that year, 1963 Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones, thinks there’s another half of that stellar equation, too.

“The chief mechanic was George Bignotti, and George was a great part of that car,” Jones said.

Jones and business partner Vel Miletich bought a team from industrialist John Mecom Jr. and Al Retzlaff, for whom Unser drove from 1966-68. Bignotti was the crew chief. Unser and Bignotti came as a package deal to Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing when it debuted in 1969.

“What happened was Bobby (Unser) and I were good friends, and that Al wasn’t happy with the team he was with,” Jones said. “Vel and I went over and bought the team.”

Bignotti and mechanic Jim Dilamarter extensively modified the Mecom Lola chassis before the 1969 season, converting the car from four-wheel drive to rear-wheel drive and adding side-mounted fuel tanks and fairings for the external oil coolers.

Unser didn’t race in the 1969 Indianapolis 500 for Vel’s Parnelli Jones because he suffered a broken leg while crashing his motorcycle in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway infield the night before qualifications started. Bud Tinglestad took Unser’s place in the team’s Indy entry.

But Unser returned later in the 1969 season and was healed and ready in 1970. The technical team at Vel’s Parnelli Jones also worked its magic leading into the 1970 season, as master fabricator Joe Fukashima modified the bodywork, putting the car on the leading edge of the emerging art of aerodynamics.

Unser’s driving skill and the mechanical wizardry of Bignotti and his crew, mixed with Jones’ experience and acumen, forged an unbeatable combination in the famous dark blue and yellow Johnny Lightning Special, one of the most renowned, beloved and dominant cars in Indy 500 history.

“We took some of the knowledge we had and put it into that car and with the knowledge they had, it became a dominant car,” Jones said. “We really dominated the race in 1970 with Al. We just were quicker than everybody in practice, qualifying and the race.”

Unser was the fastest in practice during the month at 171.233 mph, won the pole with a four-lap average speed of 170.221 and led 190 laps en route to his first of a record-tying four Indianapolis 500 victories. Unser also won the USAC National Championship that season in the car.

The next year, that same combination of man and machine also won at Indy. Unser led 103 laps in the same car to become the first repeat winner of the “500” since Bill Vukovich in 1953-54.

“It was a really dominant car,” Jones said. “It’s in the Museum, and I’m real proud of that car.”

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