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Slick Operator

Forty years after Parnelli Jones' Indy 500 victory, the driver is as revered as ever

May 20, 2003|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — A 4-year-old race car built in Glendale, a 29-year-old former jalopy driver from Torrance and a flamboyant Stetson-wearing car owner from San Pedro teamed 40 years ago this week to win one of the most memorable Indianapolis 500s.

"Who do you think you are, Parnelli Jones?" was a byword for anyone caught speeding in the 1960s.

It was Jones, driving a well-worn Ol' Calhoun, built by A.J. Watson and owned by J.C. Agajanian, who survived an oil leak late in the race and beat the revolutionary Lotus-Fords of Jimmy Clark and Dan Gurney to become an icon of American racing.

Forty years later, wherever Parnelli Jones goes around Indianapolis, heads turn, old friends and new admirers wave. Jones won the 500 only once and drove only seven times here but remains one of its most revered competitors.

The 1963 race was a classic turning point for open-wheel racing, matching the conventional Indianapolis-type roadster with a front-mounted, four-cylinder Meyer and Drake Offenhauser engine against the English-built, pencil-thin Lotus powered by a rear-mounted V-8 Ford engine. To top it off, the Lotus was painted green, a traditional bad-luck color in American racing at that time.

The pugnacious Jones, for whom fighting had been a way of life as he raced his way out of the rough and tumble Torrance neighborhood, added to the legend and the mystique the next day by decking fellow driver Eddie Sachs at a luncheon honoring the winner.

Sachs said on television the night of the race that Jones' victory had been tainted, adding, "This is the first time I've seen a man win the Indianapolis 500 that didn't deserve it."

The pair met at a luncheon in the old Holiday Inn, across the street from the speedway. It was where most of the drivers stayed before the Speedway Motel was built.

"Eddie walked up to me and said, 'Congratulations, but you should have been black-flagged. I spun out in your oil.' I told him the track was oily all day and he spun because he had a loose wheel, but he kept needling me until I said, 'If you don't shut up, I'll bust you in the mouth.' "

Sachs didn't shut up and Jones decked him. The blow, the only one thrown, cut Sachs' mouth and drew blood.

"Eddie went up to his room and got a steak to put on his eye, and a little black flag, and came back and posed for the photographers. It ran in all the papers the next day, but he never showed up for the banquet that night."

The flap started when the oil tank in Jones' car developed a leak late in the race. The leak occurred where the tank was bolted to the chassis. Drivers and crews had been warned in the drivers' meeting that any oil leaks would bring out a black flag, which calls for the driver to pit on the next lap and consult with officials.

"There weren't any radio communications in those days, but I knew it was leaking because oil got on my tires and I almost spun myself," Jones said. "That's why Jimmy Clark got within five seconds of me, I had to slow down to keep control. Then, when it quit leaking, I got back on it and pulled away."

Clark's version, as told to Mike Kupper, a Times assistant sports editor then of the Milwaukee Journal, was that as he got closer to Jones he saw the oil and backed off for safety purposes.

"I saw what Sachs did and I didn't want to do the same thing," Clark was quoted. "I'd skidded a bit myself."

Sachs had spun once and continued racing, only to drop out later when a wheel came off his car.

Drama in the pits, in the race's finishing laps, only fueled the feud.

With the oil dripping on the racing surface, Colin Chapman, English builder of the Lotus-Fords, protested to the chief steward that Jones should be black flagged. Agajanian, sensing what was happening, raced to the control tower and argued that the leaking had stopped.

"It had been blowing oil, but I didn't think it was enough to make it dangerous for anyone," Agajanian told Bob Thomas, who was covering the race for The Times. "A lot of the other cars were blowing more oil. Then ours quit leaking."

Indeed it had. The oil level had dropped below the point of the faulty bolt, so no more was escaping.

Chief steward Harlan Fengler was convinced and put aside the black flag. Later, he said, "You can't take this race away from a man on snap judgment."

Rodger Ward, a two-time 500 winner who finished fourth that day, agreed with Fengler's decision.

"When a guy worked that hard and was that close to the finish, I don't see how you could justify the black flag," Ward said.

The sight of Agajanian in his familiar Stetson, one of the most recognizable owners in Speedway history, arguing his case with Fengler prompted the crowd to roar its approval when J.C. went running down pit lane to the tower.

Jones said there was no way he would have stopped, even if Fengler had waved the black flag.

"Not with only a lap or two to go in the Indianapolis 500, I wouldn't," he said defiantly this week, still appearing as fit as he was 40 years ago.

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