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Jones' Blood Is Still Racing

Motor sports: Racing legend, recipient of Shav Glick Award, still has that competitive urge.

April 24, 2002|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Parnelli Jones is disappointed by the one thing in auto racing that bothers him.

NASCAR doesn't send him a hard card that allows him entry into its events. Never mind that Jones won plenty of the organization's stock car races.

"CART sends me a hard card every year. So does the IRL. USAC gives me a lifetime card," Jones says, warming up to his subject like an old roadster readying to peel out of pit lane. "NASCAR has never done anything like that for me. My son [PJ] is driving down there [in the Busch Series], and I've got to pay $1,500 for a pit pass.

"I'm in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, the Novi Hall of Fame, the Midget Hall of Fame, the Sprint Car Hall of Fame, the Indianapolis Hall of Fame. I would think guys in my position would be an asset around the races. It ain't the money, it's the principle."

Jones won't have to lay out the cash Sunday before the Napa Auto Parts 500 at California Speedway, where he will be awarded the third Eagle One Shav Glick Award for distinguished achievement in motor racing by a Californian.

Jones joins legendary owner-driver Dan Gurney and NHRA founder Wally Parks as recipients of the award named for The Times' longtime motorsports writer.

Jones got his start in the early 1950s, with a fake ID, driving a jalopy on a dirt track in Gardena Stadium. He won the Indy 500 as a driver in 1963, and as an owner in 1970 and '71, with Al Unser driving. He broke the 150-mph barrier at Indianapolis, and he drove the first turbine-powered race car there. He won the Pikes Peak hill climb and, with longtime partner Vel Miletich, owned a Formula One team, with Mario Andretti driving.

Jones won 22 NASCAR West Coast series races, but his finest moment in stock cars might have been dominating the NASCAR Motor Trend 500 at Riverside Raceway in 1967, though his 1968 effort was pretty good too. After setting a track record on state-of-the-art Firestone tires, he says, NASCAR made him use the older style tires he had sold a day earlier to the other drivers.

"They made me start dead last," Jones recalls. "I took the lead before the first pit stop, rolled down the window and gave Bill France [Sr.] the one-lap sign."

A legend in motorsports?

"I am what I am," Jones says in his Torrance office, a huge photo hanging behind him that celebrates his 1963 Indy 500 victory. "I still love racing. I go to the races, I watch it all the time on television. It's such a part of my life, why would I do anything else?"

He is 68 now, but about two weeks ago turned hot laps around Willow Springs Raceway, topping 100 mph while filming a commercial for Speed Channel. He gives rides at racing schools to those who want to know what it's like to take a lap at speed. There are public appearances, charity events, and his real estate business.

He drove competitively as recently as last year, driving a Trans Am car in a vintage race, which may be apropos for a vintage driver.

"Parnelli Jones is a living example of the American rags-to-riches story," says Glick, who is undergoing minor surgery today and will miss the weekend racing. "Although he won the 500 only once, he is still held in awe at the speedway for his daring style of racing.

"Today, he is one of racing's revered senior citizens."

It wasn't always that way for Rufus Parnell Jones. Before he dropped out of San Pedro High in the 11th grade, he and a buddy, Bill Calder, began racing a jalopy on the quarter-mile dirt oval in Gardena.

Jones was only 17, four years too young to race legally. So his buddy Bill, who had ribbed him by calling him Parnellie after a schoolgirl named Nellie, made the fake ID and Parnelli Jones was born.

"I'm really comfortable financially--I'm not the world's richest by any means but I'm reasonably comfortable," says Jones, who made his fortune as a distributor of Firestone tires for 11 western states. "I look back and see all the water under the bridge and almost can't believe that it's me. It's like I'm me, and Parnelli is somebody else."

Once he got decent engines in those jalopies that ran on tracks in Long Beach, San Bernardino and Carpinteria, Jones also proved to be fast.

Folks started calling him "Indy material," and by 1961, he was. He was the co-rookie of the year, with Bobby Marshman, and sat on the pole in 1962 and '63. After winning the race, driving for the late J.C. Agajanian of San Pedro, in 1963, he nearly won again in 1967. Driving Andy Granatelli's turbine-powered car, he had almost lapped second running A.J. Foyt when, with 31/2 laps to go, a $7 bearing broke and his car coasted into the pits. It was his last race at Indy as a driver.

He and Miletich, who died in 1998, then put together Vel's Parnelli Jones Racing. With Andretti , Unser and Joe Leonard driving, it became known as "Superteam" and lived up to its name, winning 53 USAC races. There were plenty more victories for Jones as well, in SCCA Formula 5000, AHRA and NHRA drag racing and off-road events, among them the Baja 500 and 1000 twice each.

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