RIP Parnelli Jones 1933-2024

| 5 Jun 2024
Classic & Sports Car – RIP Parnelli Jones 1933-2024

Rufus Parnell Jones, who has died aged 90, was one of the fastest, most versatile and best-loved racing drivers to grace US motorsport.

Immortalised with AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney as a pillar of American racing’s version of the ‘Million-Dollar Quartet’, Parnelli – as he was universally known – was a winner in everything he drove, from Sprint Cars and Midgets to IndyCars and NASCAR, sports cars and Trans-Am, and even off-road at Pikes Peak and Baja.

Born in Akansas, Parnelli spent the vast majority of his life in Torrance, California, from where he established himself in the 1950s as a fast-rising star.

He made his NASCAR Cup debut with team owner Vel Miletich in 1958 and broke through into Sprint Cars, winning the USAC Mid-west title in 1960, then a pair of National crowns in the following years.

On his first appearance at the Indianapolis 500 in 1961, Parnelli qualified fifth and led 27 laps before JC Agajanian’s Watson-Offy roadster dropped a cylinder and a shard of metal cut him above his left eye. He finished 12th with blood-filled goggles.

Classic & Sports Car – RIP Parnelli Jones 1933-2024

Parnelli Jones (98) en route to his 1963 Indianapolis 500 victory, leading Jim Hurtubise (56), Bobby Marshman (5), Jim McElreath (8) and Rodger Ward (1) © Getty Images

Following a record-breaking pole position at 150.370mph in 1962, Parnelli landed his sole Indy 500 victory as a driver the following year – in controversial circumstances.

While he led 167 of the 200 laps, his mount Ol’ Calhoun seeped oil yet avoided a black flag as Jim Clark loomed in his game-changing rear-engined Lotus.

The writing was on the wall. After persevering in 1964 with Ol’ Calhoun, losing a consecutive Indy win when it caught fire following a pitstop and he was forced to bail, Parnelli raced and won for Team Lotus at Milwaukee. He would finish second to Clark as the Scot scored his landmark victory at the 500 in ’65.

By then, Parnelli was already winding down his full-time driving career to focus more on team ownership.

But he returned to the cockpit for the 500 in 1967, only to endure his biggest heartbreak. Having led 171 laps in Andy Granatelli’s STP Paxton Turbine, a six-dollar bearing failed just eight miles from the chequer.

His final record of 492 laps led in just seven starts, with only one win, only cuts the surface of his impact at The Brickyard.

Classic & Sports Car – RIP Parnelli Jones 1933-2024

Parnelli Jones steers his Ford Torino to a third-place finish at the Motor Trend 500 at Riverside, on 22 January 1968 © Getty Images

But greater glory followed as an owner. Having hired the legendary George Bignotti on spanners, Parnelli ran Al Unser to consecutive 500 victories in 1970 and ’71 in a Colt, with teammate Joe Leonard sealing a pair of IndyCar titles in 1971 and ’72.

Concurrently, Parnelli remained a force behind the wheel, winning five of 11 Trans-Am races in ’70 and scoring a brace of Baja 1000 and Baja 500 victories across four years.

In partnership with Miletech, Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing even took on Formula One, running Maurice Phillippe’s Lotus 72 lookalike VPJ-4 for Mario Andretti from late 1974 to early 1976 – without notable success.

VPJ built and led the development of Cosworth’s turbocharged DFX in the second half of the decade, before Parnelli quit team ownership.

Both his sons competed, PJ Jones enjoying success in IMSA sports-car racing, as Parnelli remained a celebrated figure.

Among his peers, he was revered: Andretti lauded him as “the greatest driver of his era”.

Images: Getty Images

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