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PARNELLI JONES : Racing Legend Will Drive in a Race He's Sponsoring

April 25, 1987|SHAV GLICK | Times Staff Writer

RIVERSIDE — Parnelli Jones became a racing legend here two decades ago when he won a Times Grand Prix, a NASCAR stock car race and a Trans-Am sedan race on the twisting Riverside International Raceway course.

Today, he returns to the track with a day in his name.

Two races--the Parnelli Jones Sports 2,000 and the Parnelli Jones Firestone Firehawk Endurance Challenge--will serve as a prelude to Sunday's 10th annual Times Grand Prix of Endurance.

Jones will preside over the Sports 2,000 race--a 30-minute sprint starting at 2:15 p.m.--and then climb into his driving uniform and compete with drivers of 75 other showroom stock sedans in the three-hour Firehawk race.

"I drove in the first race at Riverside in 1958 and I wanted to drive in the last one," the 53-year-old Jones said. "That's why I'm here. Of course, I drove in one two years ago when I thought it was going to be the last one.

"Now, it looks like I'll have to get me a stock car ride to be in the last race."

Several closing dates have been announced for the 30-year-old Riverside facility, the most recent being sometime in November after the Winston West 500 stock car race. The newest rumor, however, is that there is a possibility the track will stay open through at least part of the 1988 season.

No one knows just when the track will close, except Fritz Duda, the track's majority stockholder, and either he isn't sure himself, or he's not saying.

In the meantime, Jones will drive a turbocharged Nissan 300ZX in today's three-hour race, with Steve Johnson of La Verne as his co-driver. The car is owned by Bob Yakushi, a Nissan engineer from Redondo Beach.

"I don't want to make a steady career of racing cars again but I still enjoy it and I feel like I do it well," Jones said. "Once in a while I get in one of those celebrity races, like at Long Beach, and I get a taste of the excitement again.

"I read somewhere where this was going to be my last race. I hope not. I don't expect to be racing against my kids, like Mario (Andretti) and Big Al (Unser), but I have too much fun racing to quit completely."

One of Jones' two sons, P.J., who turned 18 Thursday, is already racing professionally in the United States Auto Club's midget division.

P.J., a senior at Miraleste High in Rolling Hills, will miss watching his father today because he will be in Ventura for a USAC Western Regional midget race tonight.

"I'll tell you, it's no thrill watching your children race," Parnelli said. "Now I know what I did to my parents. It's tough to have to sit and watch . . . and worry."

The younger of Jones' sons, Page, is 14 and racing karts.

"I guess the reason there are so many second-generation drivers today is because from the time they were born, they had race cars in their crib," Jones said. "The first toy the son of a race driver gets is a model race car. And they've all been around racing personalities and cars all their lives."

P.J. was two weeks old when Parnelli and Judy Jones took him to his first Indianapolis 500. Parnelli was there as owner of the Johnny Lightning Special that Al Unser drove to victory.

"I remember once I was being interviewed at the Speedway and the interviewer turned to P.J. and said, 'And here's the winner of the 1990 Indy 500,' " Parnelli recalled.

"It's hard to break that chain. Both of my children were excellent Little League players and home run hitters, but I couldn't keep their interest there. As soon as they'd get out of school, instead of playing ball, they'd head for the race shop.

"I can honestly say that I never wanted them to become race drivers, but I never said no to their inclination, either."

P.J. is doing quite well in the midgets.

In his last race, at Ascot Park, he started outside in the front row, lost his brakes in mid-race and still finished sixth. In a recent USAC regional race at Ventura, he was second, beaten only by two-time national champion Sleepy Tripp.

"If the boys are going to be racers, I think they need to get the feel of wheel-to-wheel racing and the only place to get it is in karts, midgets and sprint cars," Parnelli said. "You get a depth of racing experience you don't get from just going to driver's school and running in road races.

"Now that P.J. is 18, I expect he'll be moving into a Super Vee or a sprint car before long."

When he does, P.J. will be the facing the same situation his father faces today--the prospect of having a Parnelli--or P.J.--Jones win a race sponsored by Parnelli Jones Firestone.

"We have 35 retail outlets and my partner (Vel Miletich) and I sell a lot of racing tires so we decided we ought to sponsor some races," Jones said. "We signed a three-year deal with the California Racing Assn. sprint cars and we're doing these two races Saturday with The Times."

Jones rates his win in the 1964 Times Grand Prix as one of the top thrills in his career.

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