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They Got Out of the Fast Lane : For Parnelli Jones and Kenny Roberts, Celebrity Race Is Fun

April 09, 1985|RICH ROBERTS | Times Staff Writer

For Parnelli Jones, it's not quite like the old days, when he would settle into the cockpit of his number 98 roadster, Ol' Calhoun, and look across the grid and see A.J. Foyt, Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti staring back at him.

Maybe when the field revs up for Saturday's Toyota Pro-Celebrity Race at Long Beach, a prelude to Sunday's 11th Grand Prix, there will be a familiar, fleeting tingle in his innards. But the faces that come into focus will belong to Mark Gastineau, Lorenzo Lamas and Eddie Van Halen, who will be as much at home as Jones would be if he were playing defensive end in rhinestone pants.

Kenny Roberts has faced stiffer competition, too, and at far greater speeds on two wheels than he'll be doing on four.

So what are Jones and Roberts doing fooling around with football players, actors and rock guitarists when they could still be at the tops of their professions?

"It's a fun thing," Jones said.

"It's a fun thing," Roberts said.

What they're saying is that what they did to become rich and famous wasn't one long laugh track and hardly ever a sack dance.

Jones drove his last Indianapolis 500 in 1967 when he was only 33, an age when most drivers are in their prime.

He still has a sure touch, though, in wheeling a new Toyota MR2 around the Long Beach street circuit after a morning rain, with a reporter in the passenger seat.

Sliding tires and skimming concrete barriers, he seems content and in his element. It seems almost enough to cool the competitive fire in his blood. Jones knows what Roberts is going through.

Roberts, 33, is anticipating a new life without skin grafts and cold sweat, but he is uncertain how to handle it.

"The problem with motorcycles is that on the physical and mental level it's a little higher than what we're dealing with here," Roberts said. "It just wore me down."

Jones doesn't need to be reminded that 18 years after he quit driving championship cars, some of his contemporaries, such as Foyt and Andretti, are still competing--and winning.

On the other hand, some of the others are dead.

Andy Granatelli once said: "Parnelli is the bravest man in the world in a racing car." But Jones also was one of the smartest, in or out of a car.

"You know, racing's especially dangerous," he said. "I'd been fortunate to do a lot of racing in my younger days, long before I got to Indianapolis. I was running when I was 17 years old, 70 or 75 races a year.

"I'm not saying you get burnt out from racing, but you get burnt out from the traveling and living out of a suitcase. I knew I was young, but I could see my future."

Jones secured his future by investing the prize money from his 1963 Indy victory and other successes in real estate with his longtime car owner, the late J.C. Agajanian, and in a car dealership with Vel Miletich. By the time he retired, he had started a chain of Firestone franchise stores that now number 36.

"The thing that probably helped me more than anything that a lot of race drivers don't have is that I'd started a business," Jones said. "I could see that was my real future."

Roberts has a motorcycle shop in San Jose and will continue to reap endorsements from his sponsor, Yamaha. He doesn't need money but he needs something to ease his withdrawal from a life spent at fast forward.

Jones, after his hard-luck turbocar experience with Granatelli at Indy in '67, fought off persuasive arguments to return. Instead, he slipped into the lower-key Trans-Am and off-road circuits.

"It helped me wean out of it," he said.

Roberts, waiting his turn to drive around the Long Beach course, said: "I've done a little bit of four-wheel racing but I'm just trying to find out what I want to do--something to keep my racing competitiveness but not something that's gonna take a lot of my time."

Roberts ranks as America's best motorcycle racer ever, having won world championships in 1978, '79 and '80, a record 30 AMA Camel-Winston Pro series wins in '82 and victories in the only three events he raced last year.

"I was the youngest national champion at the time (1973) and now I'm the oldest," he said. "But the way you ride 'em when you get to my level, you literally stop your heart beating every time.

"There's only three guys in the world right now that can ride 'em at that level--Freddie Spencer, Randy Mamola and Eddie Lawson--at my level, where I stopped. To do that is exciting, and I don't think I can match that excitement in a race car of any sort. That's beyond the edge, because you know if you make a mistake, you're not gonna put it in gear and take off again."

Roberts doesn't like the view over the edge anymore. In a race in England in 1976 he fell off his bike at about 150 m.p.h. and skidded across wet grass for several hundred yards. While testing in Japan in '79, he slipped at 120 m.p.h., breaking his back and left foot, and rupturing his spleen.

Details of the incidents remain as vivid as a videotape.

"You know exactly what's going on," Roberts said. "You just hope that when you stop and everything is silent that you can feel everything, 'cause if you can't feel everything you're in big trouble.

"You're actually in slow motion before you crash. What you're trying to do on a motorcycle is convince your mind that you're only doing 40 when you're doing 150. In doing that, if anything happens it sticks for a long time.

"You can't ride scared--but it scares you. You get into a slide or lose (traction on) your front wheel and that gets your heart pumping. When you have a close call, the adrenaline kicks in like a turbocharger.

"I'd like to know exactly how fast it speeds your heart up. When you have three or four of those a day it gets old after a while. You say, 'Man, I don't really need this.' "

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