Tune In To Parnelli On “Trackside”

The weather has been crazy in Nashville. This past Sunday, it was around seventy degrees as rain poured down in buckets. On Monday, it turned cold – very cold. So cold, that it got down to fifteen. That’s cold whether you live in St. Paul or St. Petersburg. That coupled with the resulting sleet, snow and freezing rain has me yearning for some racing – any type of racing. I’ll settle for NASCAR at this point.

Fortunately, a lot of us are going to get our fix tomorrow night. Trackside has been on hiatus for the past several weeks. Maybe that’s why there seems to be no buzz in the IndyCar circles. But our friends Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee return for two hours tomorrow night to talk racing. Normally, they don’t have an in-studio guest. A couple of months ago, they had driver James Hinchcliffe in the house but that was the exception and not the rule.

Well, tomorrow night – they are kicking the year off in style. Not only will they have an in-studio guest – it will be none other than the great Parnelli Jones. Not to take away from Curt and Kevin, but if they just turned him loose and let him have the whole show it would suit me fine. Parnelli Jones could fill up a six hour show with no commercials, just by telling stories.

Most people go through many “favorite” athletes over a lifetime. My two current favorite drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series are Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan. My all-time favorite driver is AJ Foyt. But as a kid growing up, my first favorite (if that doesn’t sound contradictory) was Parnelli Jones.

As a five year-old, my basis for that decision was that I liked his name and loved the car he drove to victory in 1963 – Ol’ Calhoun. Before my father and two brothers went to the 1964 race without me, they had shown me pictures of Jones winning the previous year’s race. Something about the white Watson roadster with the royal blue nose driven by the guy with the great name, captured my imagination – which didn’t take much at that age.

I was disappointed to learn that his car caught fire in the pits in 1964 and he didn’t win. When I went to my first race in 1965, Jones was one of the favorites to win and he was driving another good-looking car – an old-gold Lotus with a white strip going down the middle. He didn’t win that race either, but he finished second to Jim Clark who absolutely dominated that day.

Two years later, Parnelli Jones would drive another eye-catching car – Silent Sam; Andy Granatelli’s turbine-powered car with the Pratt & Whitney jet engine that ran along the left side of the car. To call it revolutionary was an understatement. It had four-wheel drive and even utilized an air brake, although that was never used in the race.

Jones qualified sixth, but at the start of the 1967 race, he blew past pole-sitter Mario Andretti on the backstretch and never looked back. He pretty much led the whole way until a six-dollar ball-bearing gave way with three laps to go. As he coasted into the pits, AJ Foyt roared past en route to his third Indianapolis 500 victory.

Parnelli Jones never raced at Indianapolis again. He is quoted as feeling empty when he left the track for good a couple of days later. He says he had the same feeling you get when you are leaving on a trip and you’re certain you’ve left something behind. For all of his accomplishments at the track, he only raced in seven 500’s.

Jones went on to become a very successful car owner. He partnered with Velko “Vel” Miletich to form Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing or simply VPJ. They owned the beautiful Johnny Lightning Specials that Al Unser drove to victory in 1970 and 1971, as well as the cars driven by Joe Leonard to win the USAC National Championship in 1971 and 1972. The team later ventured into Formula One, but never had the success they had in USAC.

But for all of his racing accomplishments, of which there are many; Parnelli Jones may be best at story telling. Not fictitious embellishments, mind you – he doesn’t need to make anything up. Remember, this is the man who went 150 mph at Indianapolis before anyone else did – ever. This is also the man that decked Eddie Sachs in the breakfast buffet line at the old Speedway Motel the morning after the race and put him on the ground for mouthing off about the way he had won the 1963 race. He was best friends with Jim Hurtubise and considered Troy Ruttman his racing hero.

Parnelli Jones is now seventy-nine years old, but his mind and wit are sharp as ever. Last year, I saw him drive Ol’ Calhoun for some ceremonial laps on Pole Day. I was standing there as he climbed out of the car. He seemed as fit as ever as well. There was no fat on this man. Nor did he appear frail or thin. Quite honestly, he looked as strong as an ox. But I think he’s done with fighting in the buffet line.

If you want to have some temporary relief from the winter doldrums, tune into Trackside tomorrow night on 1070TheFan.com at 8:00 pm Eastern time. If you want some good stories and a feel for what racing was like forty and fifty years ago, be prepared to be entertained. It’ll get the month of May here that much quicker.

George Phillips

3 Responses to “Tune In To Parnelli On “Trackside””

  1. May of 1964, while in second grade, was my build-up to my first Indianapolis 500. Like all good Hoosier kids, I had watched all of the Indy 500 specials on Indianapolis television since the crib so I knew who the drivers were and to me they were supernatural. Rodger Ward, AJ Foyt and Parnelli Jones were three fresh 500 winners and I knew that Eddie Sachs was fast. With all of that, the cars were like excalibur to me, particularly Ol’ Calhoun, not so much for it’s speed, but because it was so damn pretty. Still is, too. Anyway, that day I was pulling for Foyt, but I liked Jones and seeing those two go after it from my perch in Section “B” was taking my breath away. I remember Jones leaping out of Calhoun and rolling in the pit, too. Take away the first two laps and it was an amazing race.

    By the way, I am still mesmerized by Silent Sam.

  2. Parnelli was my hero too. My Dad worked at Bill Stroppe’s shop in So CA, and Parnelli drove one of their stock cars pretty much every year for a while at the Motor Trend 500 at Riverside, which used to be the first race of the year.
    In 1990, I worked on PJ and Page’s USAC Midgets for a short time as I also went to work on PJ’s Indy Lights car (ARS at the time). Had the extreme privilege and honor (I was somewhat in awe) of riding with Parnelli, PJ, and then-crew chief Mike Horvath from Toronto after the race down to the airport in Buffalo NY where Parnelli caught a plane. PJ and Mike sat in the back seat talking, and I was able to sit and talk one-on-one for a couple hours with Parnelli about his career and what-not about the current (1990) era. He was just a regular guy who had some amazing accomplishments. He remained and still remains my biggest racing ‘hero’.

  3. james t suel Says:

    Parnelli was one of the best to ever turn a wheel at the speedway. I was lucky enought to see him in all 7 of his races at Indy. watching THIS MAN WHEEL OL CALHOUN AROUND THE SPEEDWAY WAS A THING OF BEAUTY! IT WAS A ENOUGH TO BRING TEARS TO YOUR EYES!

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