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Parnelli Jones

Full Name:
Rufus Parnelli Jones
12th August 1933 (Age 86)
Texarkana, Arkansas
Most recent race (in database):

American racing has many great characters and champions and the name of Parnelli Jones ranks among that elite list. 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner, successful in stock cars and at Pikes Peak, Trans-Am champion – he was also an Formula 1 entrant during a long and varied career.

Early racing career and NASCAR victories

Jones began racing in 1950 when not legally old enough to do so. By then a resident of Torrance in California, he adopted his nickname from school (Parnelli) in the hope that he could conceal his identity and age. He made his NASCAR debut in 1956 and finished second at San Mateo driving Vel Miletich’s Ford at the beginning of a partnership that would stand the test of time.

Jones started 10 senior NASCAR races in Oscar Maples’ Ford Fairlane during 1957. That included pole position at the Eureka Speedway and a breakthrough victory on the 0.9-mile road course at Bremerton’s Kitsap County Airport. He won a race for the next two seasons on infrequent outings in the series for Miletich.

Open wheel career and Indy 500 success

He won the 1960 Midwest Sprint Car Championship in a year when Jones also made his Indycar debut. Second on Sacramento’s one-mile dirt oval at the end of the season, Jones earned the backing of famed promoter J.C.Agajanian for 1961. He qualified fifth at Indianapolis and won the final race of the year at Phoenix.

Jones qualified Agajanian’s Willard Battery Watson-Offenhauser on pole position for the 1962 Indy 500 and led 120 of the 200 laps before fading to seventh after losing time in the pits due to brake issues. He then won at the neighbouring Indiana State Fairgrounds and was a career-best third in the USAC National Championship.

On pole again for the 1963 Indianapolis 500, Jones scored a controversial victory after trailing oil during the closing stages. Rather than black flag him, with Jim Clark ready to inherit victory, officials allowed Jones’s Watson-Offy to continue on to victory by 33.84 seconds. Eddie Sachs, who claimed he had crashed on the oil, confronted him a day later but Jones ended the ensuing argument with a single punch.

Jones won the Pikes Peak hillclimb in 1964 and 1965 and added USAC titles in both midgets and stock cars to his already impressive career. He joined Team Lotus to dominate from pole position at Milwaukee and Trenton during 1964. But Clark had his revenge in the 1965 Indy 500 when the positions from two years ago were reversed – Jones’s Agajanian Lotus 34-Ford second behind the brilliant Scot.

No repeat victory in the 500

He won the Riverside NASCAR race in his only such start of 1967 and his silent four-wheel-drive Granatelli-Pratt & Whitney turbine was the class of the field in that year’s Indy 500. He led 171 laps before the transmission failed with just four laps to go. Classified sixth in the race, a $6 bearing cost Jones another victory in the world’s richest race.

Trans-Am champion turns team owner

Although that was his final Indycar race, Jones continued to race and won the 1970 Trans-Am Championship with a Ford Mustang after beating Mark Donohue by just a point.

Parnelli and Miletich combined to form Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing in 1969 and it won three successive Indycar titles with Al Unser (1970) and Joe Leonard (1971 and 1972). Unser also won the Indy 500 twice for the team before they decided to enter the F1 world championship.

Maurice Philippe designed the Parnelli VPJ4-Ford and Mario Andretti finished its debut at the 1974 Canadian Grand Prix in seventh position. He qualified third for the next race at Watkins Glen and 1975 included successive points scores in Sweden (fourth) and France (fifth) as the team took 10th in the constructors’ standings in its first full season.

But the withdrawal of key backer Firestone was a mortal blow and Andretti’s sixth place finish in the 1976 South African GP was its final result of note before Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing abandoned F1 a race later. Jones also ran a successful tyre distribution company and his son "PJ" followed him into professional racing.