From NASCAR to open-wheel Indy cars, and from sprint cars to midgets to off-road vehicles, Parnelli Jones never met a four-wheel ride he couldn’t conquer.
While the Torrance, California, resident’s career began in stock car racing, it was success in open-wheel and off-road racing that made Jones a racing legend.
“There was a cop once upon a time who pulled someone over and said, ‘Who the hell do you think you are, Parnelli Jones?’” drag racing legend Don “Snake” Prudhomme told NBC Sports. “I heard that saying even before I met him and once I did meet him, I understood why.”
Now 86, Jones is the oldest living Indianapolis 500 winner. Sadly, mobility issues have taken a toll on his health. Last year marked the first time he was unable to attend the 500, snapping a streak that stretched from 1958 to 2018.
“It was really disappointing not to go back and see my friends, kidding around with a lot of the new younger guys coming up and just being a part of the 500 (pageantry),” Jones told NBC Sports.
Still, he tries to keep a sunny disposition.
“I can’t motor around, my legs aren’t strong enough to play golf or anything like that,” he said. “Other than that, I feel fine, I’m just not mobile.”
Rufus Parnell Jones, whose nickname of Parnelli became a single-word calling card of recognition, is a three-time Indy 500 winner: once as a driver in 1963 and back-to-back triumphs as a team co-owner in 1970 and 1971, with Al Unser behind the wheel both years.
While stock car racing, particularly in NASCAR and USAC, was his first love, Jones became quite the prolific sprint car champion, earning three consecutive USAC Sprint Car Series titles (1960-62). He’d go on to win 25 races each in both sprint cars and midgets during his career.
That led to legendary promoter J.C. Agajanian signing Jones to drive Indy cars, which he took to like a duck takes to water.
In his first year at the fabled Brickyard in 1961, Jones led 27 laps before two freak incidents occurred. First, he was struck in the face by a piece of debris kicked up by another car, causing blood to gush from his face and into his eyes, blurring his vision for the rest of the race.
Then, as if to add insult to injury, he lost a cylinder in his motor late in the race. Both instances relegated him to a 12th place finish, but he received some consolation when he was named co-Rookie of the Year with Bobby Marshman (finished 7th).
From that point on, speed became the name of the game for Jones: In 1962, he became the first driver in Indy 500 history to qualify at over 150 mph (150.370 mph).
He would go on to dominate the first two-thirds of the race until a brake line failure left him with a seventh-place finish.
He’d take the pole again in 1963 and dominated the Greatest Spectacle In Racing by leading 167 laps and taking the checkered flag by a monstrous margin of 34 seconds over runner-up Jim Clark.
Jones would ultimately go on to earn six wins in 59 Indy car starts, as well as 23 top-5 (including nine runner-ups) and 32 top-10 finishes and a prolific 12 poles.
But success was a dual-edged coin for Jones. Because he was such a hard-charging driver, oftentimes parts on his race car would give out, costing him even more wins and high finishes.
He would fall short of finishing a race 23 times due to mechanical/part failures and four other times due to crashes, a spin and even a pit fire. None of those shortcomings was as bittersweet as the 1967 Indianapolis 500, when a transmission bearing on revolutionary turbine car broke while leading the race with three laps to go.
Jones’ Indy car career was short, lasting just six years. His last official start was at the age of 33 when he finished sixth in the disappointing outcome of the 1967 Indy 500.
He was lured to make one last start at Indy in 1968, but stepped out of the car during a practice session and retired on the spot after proclaiming the car unsafe.
Three years later, he made his last NASCAR start in the 1970 season-opening race at Riverside at the age of 36 (finished 11th).
The reasons for Jones’ retirement as a driver were several, including starting a family as well as going into business, eventually building an empire of over 60 tire and auto repair centers across 14 western states.
But there was another key factor: his safety. Eight drivers were killed during his Indy car tenure including Tony Bettenhausen (1961), Eddie Sachs (1964), Marshman (also 1964) and F1 great Jim Clark (1968).
He did not want to add his name to the list so he called it quits.
“I was fortunate enough not to be injured and then started backing down from my racing,” Jones said. “I’d been very lucky and fortunate in a time where I’d won sprint car championships and Indy and the cars back then were very, very dangerous. I didn’t want to push my luck, plus I wanted to start a family.”
Jones started his own Indy car team and not only won the 1970 and 1971 Indy 500s with Unser driving the Johnny Lightning Special, Jones and partner Velko Miletich would win three straight USAC open-wheel championships from 1970-72.
It was around the same time that, presented with a dare at a Christmas party, Jones began off-road racing in 1969.
“At first, it was a recreational thing,” Jones said of his off-road tenure. “But it was still a race. If I got into something, I wanted to give it my all.”
And that he did.
Just like the success he enjoyed in stock cars and Indy cars, Jones excelled in off-road racing. Starting first and never relinquishing the lead, Jones and co-driver Bill Stroppe won the 1971 NORRA Mexican 1000 (later became known as the Baja 1000) – doing so in a record time of 14 hours, 59 minutes.
The duo came back two years later to win Baja again (both the 1000 and 500), along with a number of other off-road events.
“I was fortunate enough to win the Baja 1000 twice and the Baja 500,” Jones said. “We built our own car.
“That was a thrilling deal. (The 1000 is) a long race. I wasn’t really much of an endurance driver and it was pretty hard on equipment.”
Then he added with a laugh, “I guess I was fortunate to have missed a few cactuses in the Baja 1000s that I won.”
An accident in the 1974 Baja 500 brought Jones’ racing career to an end, but he remained in off-road racing as a team owner, including seeing driver Walker Evans win the 1976 SCORE truck title and the 1977 CORE Class 2 crown.
Jones also won the USAC Dirt Car sprint championship twice and the Triple Crown three times as a team owner.
The reason why Jones liked to compete in so many different forms of motorsports? He boils it down to one word: “impatience.”
“When you have racing in your blood, and I enjoyed driving different kinds of cars as well, but once I accomplished one series or something like that, I would want to see what’s out afield,” he said. “I liked jumping around doing different types of racing. It was fun, I was having a great time doing that and I was fortunate enough not to get hurt.”
There has been a long-running joke in the motorsports industry that Jones was so good and versatile that he could drive a forklift and win in it.
“I liked driving all types of cars over my career and was fortunate to jump around different types of cars and to win in each was great.”
Jones is a member of more than 20 racing halls of fame including the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame (1976), the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame (1985), the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (1990), the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame (1990), National Sprint Car Hall of Fame (1991), Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (1992) and the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame (2001).
For all the plaudits and races he won in so many forms of racing as a driver and team owner, Jones uncharacteristically experienced a lack of success during a brief term as a team owner in Formula One in the mid-1970s.
But even at the age of 60, he proved he still had it behind the wheel. Jones unretired briefly in 1993 to take part in Fast Masters, a made-for-TV event that featured 50 retired drivers from various forms of motorsports, including open-wheel greats Gary Bettenhausen, Tom Bigelow, David Hobbs, Lloyd Ruby, Dick Simon, Bobby Unser and Rodger Ward, as well as NASCAR luminaries Bobby Allison and Donnie Allison, Buddy Baker, Harry Gant, Benny Parsons, David Pearson and Dick Trickle.
Jones competed in three of the six Fast Masters races: he won once, finished runner-up a second time and his lowest finish was just sixth (in the championship finale). He also earned one pole and never qualified lower than third in the three events he entered.
Jones is retired these days but, not surprisingly, is still involved in motorsports. His son, PJ, is a racer and builds some of the most successful off-road race vehicles in the sport.
Another son, Page, was just 22 years old when he was critically injured in a sprint car race in 1994 at Eldora Speedway (now owned by NASCAR great Tony Stewart), suffering a traumatic brain injury that took almost 10 years to recover from.
The apple of Parnelli’s racing eye now is grandson Jagger, PJ’s son, who finished second and earned Rookie of the Year honors last season in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West (now known as the ARCA Menards West Series).
“The first toy they get is a race car or something like that, and then they follow their parents,” Parnelli said of his young protégé. “Jagger is no different. He’s certainly a very bright kid, very sharp, he adapts well and learns well.
“He’s a very smart kid, has great grades and is at the top all the time. I’m very proud of him. He’s certainly put a great mark on the Jones family.”
Jagger Jones has competed in the last two NORRA Mexican 1000 races, including last year with the 79-year-old Prudhomme as his co-driver.
The duo plans to again compete together in the race in October.
“When I’m sitting next to Jagger in the race car and he has his helmet on, you’d think it’s Parnelli driving,” Prudhomme told NBC Sports. “It’s the same thing. He’s a 17-year-old kid and he’s impressed the heck out of me.”
Even though Prudhomme is only seven years younger than Parnelli, he gushes when he talks about the influence Jones has had on his life and career.
“He inspired me to try and make a success out of myself outside of just being at the race track and Parnelli was somebody I always looked up to for that,” Prudhomme told NBC Sports. “Parnelli and me, we’re pals. And if you’re pals with Parnelli Jones, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Veteran NASCAR, IndyCar and IMSA team owner Chip Ganassi is also close friends with the elder Jones and spoke to NBC Sports about the influence he’s had on his career.
And it all began with a film of Jones’ 1963 Indy 500 win.
“My father was in Indy and brought home an 8mm film of Parnelli’s win from a few months earlier,” Ganassi said. “I played that film on our wall and watched it a thousand times.
“I finally made it to the Indy 500 as a driver (1981 at the age of 23) and I meet Parnelli. I told him the story about how my dad had bought that film for me and how I watched it.
“I’ve become real good friends with him. Five years ago, I even had Thanksgiving dinner with him, his wife, his son PJ and his wife and their sons.
“The thing about Parnelli is he’s still current. He may not be the physical specimen he once was, but his mind, he’s got a lot of race craft in him still. He knows what’s going on in racing.
“Not only was he my first-ever hero, he was also the first name I ever knew in racing. There’s no question how much he’s inspired me in my life.”
The elder Jones admits it will be strange not to see the Indy 500 run this Sunday, postponed to August 23 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“To tell you the truth, I can’t imagine how it’s going to be like,” Jones said. “It’s just going to be a different year whatsoever, not only for IndyCar, but for all kinds of racing.
“Hopefully we can get things back together because our whole country is in such disarray right now and we have so many problems (that) racing seems like a secondary thing.”
But he has so many great memories of his time in the Circle City that will serve as some semblance of consolation.
“Winning Indianapolis by far was the greatest thing (of his racing career),” Jones said. “Once you’re an Indy 500 winner, that gives you a title. I was very fortunate to win the 500. Not many people can say they did that.”