When a blue-eyed lad with the memorable name of Rufus Parnell Jones completed his qualifying trials for the Indianapolis "500" the other day, a gentleman resplendent in pearl-gray Stetson and houndstooth suit could not contain himself. He bounded up and down in the pit lane as Jones's car rolled in, and when he got his hands on the driver lifted him high in an ecstatic bear hug. Thus did J. C. Agajanian, hog rancher, bon vivant, racing promoter and race-car owner, greet the driver of his Indianapolis entry—and his capers were understandable. Jones—"Parnelli" to all Indy aficionados—had just broken the speedway's one-minute barrier and had sped to the first official 150-mph lap ever recorded.
That historic event set the tone for this year's race, the 46th "500," which will surely be among the most memorable of all. Because of his heroics, Parnelli Jones will sit squarely on the pole next Wednesday when the fastest field in Indy's history rolls thunderously into motion. No fewer than six other drivers bettered 149 mph in their four-lap, 10-mile qualifying heats on the first day of trials as an astonishingly large crowd, estimated at 150,000, tensely watched, but only Parnelli cracked the record.
There are solid and significant reasons for this year's high performances. The speedway itself is inherently faster than ever before. The last homestretch half mile of rough brick remaining from the onetime all-brick surface has been paved over with asphalt (except for a yard-wide strip left at the starting line for auld langsyne). New tires with better traction have added to speed potential. But most significantly, the cars themselves are changing: the 150-mph era launched by Parnelli Jones will certainly be contested by racers as dramatically different as the lap times posted on the speedway's tall tower.
Like those of 31 other "500" drivers, Parnelli's car is an Offenhauser-engined speedway roadster. The four-cylinder Offy, which over the years has become not only an engine but a religion, has poweredall but three "500"winners since 1934. Offies cost about $10,000, produce 400 horsepower and typically vibrate like 400 nervous mules simultaneously doing the twist. They are invariably front-mounted, over a solid front axle—and the solid-axle roadster chassis has been undefeated at Indy since 1953, when its designer, Frank Kurtis, removed the driver from his old perch above the drive shaft and placed him beside it in a lower, more stable car.
May 27, 1962
But as Parnelli Jones and such seasoned Indy chargers as Rodger Ward, Jim Rathmann and A. J. Foyt hurtle away from the starting line next week, there will be one little intruder in that orthodox Offy company whose size bears no relation to its importance. It is a rearengined, independently sprung racer that looks like nothing so much as an overgrown European Grand Prix car. A veritable salad of speedway heresies, its engine is not only not an Offy, it is not even a purebred racing engine. It is, in fact, a stock passenger car Buick V-8—the lightweight aluminum one—with which an engineering genius has wrought wonders. Not since 1947, when a Ford V-8 finished 12th, has a stock engine even qualified for the "500."
This interloper and two others like it (which did not qualify) were built with desperate haste by Marion (Mickey) Thompson, California's prince of hotrodders and the fastest man on four wheels (in 1960 he reached 406.6 mph on the Utah salt flats). His Indy Buick was qualified with astonishing ease by Daniel Sexton Gurney, a fellow Californian and, as everybody knows, a card-carrying road-racing driver usually seen in sports and Grand Prix cars. Gurney, a man of no previous Indianapolis experience, qualified very handsomely indeed, at 147.886 mph, and then coolly buzzed off to Europe for Sunday's Dutch Grand Prix, where his Porsche failed to finish because of mechanical ills.
"I think," said the Mick after the qualifying trials, "that we have proved our point. We still have the race to run, of course, and I know some people doubt whether we can handle the competition in actual racing traffic—they don't think we have the acceleration. They may be surprised. Dan had only one day's practice in this car before he went out to qualify. At that, he was eighth fastest, so he'll start in the third row. With a little more time for development, we might have been the fastest."
"It's the handwriting on the wall," rejoiced one irreverent Indy fan after Gurney's galvanic trials. "The age of the dinosaur is over."
Maybe, maybe not. The antidinosaur cult, those who would like to see the hulking Offies overthrown, got in its first licks last year when Australia's Grand Prix world champion, Jack Brabham, brought home a seriously underpowered British Cooper in ninth place. Offy men regarded the rear-engined little buzz bomb as a nice but hopelessly outclassed car. They are decidedly more alarmed by the Thompson Buick. "If people ain't careful," says A. J. Foyt, last year's winner, "that car may be smack in the lead." Whether or not it will be is one of the big reasons why the "500" this year is more interesting than ever. To any sporting event that verges on ultimate performance, change brings a new shot of drama—and Indy has been pushing the ultimate for a long time. As any Indy driver can testify, prodigies of bravery and finesse were compressed by Parnelli into the tiny space of time separating 150 mph from 149. He was under one minute on each of his qualifying laps, smoothly taking them, in order, at 150.729, 150.150, 150.276 and 150.326 mph, for an overall average speed of 150.370 mph.
"There," cried Aggie Agajanian, "is a born driver."
"I was never confident that I could do the 150," said Jones deprecatingly. "I only wanted to go as fast as I could as safely as I could." But then, musing on his chances for victory in the race itself, he added, "If I thought the best I could do here was to finish second, I wouldn't be here at all."
As a matter of fact, Parnelli is considered to be the hottest "500" driver to come along since Bill Vukovich, the implacable leadfoot who won in 1953 and 1954 but was killed in the following race. Vukie was anything but a smooth driver. He fought his cars around the speedway with brutal zeal. Parnelli, in contrast, has a serene, silken touch. "I would say," remarked Tulsa's Jack Zink, a prominent Indy car owner and himself an exponent of the new and different, "that Parnelli drives romantically. By that I mean he is perfectly attuned to his car."
This extraordinary smoothness, coupled with a horror of losing, has been the hallmark of Parnelli's style ever since he started racing, in jalopies, at the age of 17. He deftly moved on and up through midget and sprint cars to the "big" Indianapolis roadsters, popping up as rookie at Indy only last year. In his first "500" he led for a total of 27 laps before a stone, kicked up by another car, gashed his forehead, slowing him a bit, and then mechanical troubles beset him. Still, he managed to limp home 12th on three of his car's four cylinders. For that performance he was paired with Pennsylvania's swift young Bobby Marshman, who has the outside front-row starting spot next week, as "co-rookie of the year."
Now 28 and muscular as a young mule, Parnelli has brush-cut sandy hair, thrice-broken nose and a habit of chainsmoking cigarettes. "I have been upside down in racing cars a few times," he says, "but my worst injury was a broken nose. I have never, knock wood, been really out of shape on this speedway."
The Offy faithful would have been thunderstruck if another and far more bizarre intruder had qualified. Jack Zink's gas turbine-powered "Track-burner" (SI, April 30), which was predictably dubbed the "trashburner" by speedway wags, suffered more than its share of teething troubles. Although it was nursed up to 145 mph, it was not quite ready for Indianapolis this year. Watch out next year, though. Sounding like a jet-prop Viscount airplane, it was able to overtake some of the fastest Offieson the straightaways. When handling and acceleration-lag problems are solved, it may be a winner.
In the meantime, Parnelli Jones & Co. will have their hands full squelching that incorrigible little Buick.