Indianapolis 500 followers who go back a ways usually raise a skeptical eyebrow when they hear that erstwhile Brickyard ace Rufus Parnell Jones has taken to wearing his hair over his ears and puka shells around his neck. Why, the Parnelli Jones who wore a crew cut and cowboy hat and dangled a Camel from the corner of a grimace when he won Indy in 1963 would have snorted and snickered and nudged his cronies in the ribs at the sight. "Now ain't that just tooty-frooty," he would have said. And then the old Parnelli would have swaggered over and spit in the new Parnelli's eye.
Jones' old racing buddies like to remind him that back in those days he was tough. To this Jones growls, "Dammit, it's the fashion!" and his lips purse, his chin juts and blue sparks shoot from his eyes and singe the golden bangs carefully combed forward over the bald spot where the crew cut once stood. Down in Gasoline Alley they remember those sparks, and it is quite clear that inside the silky Nik-Nik shirt unbuttoned to the belly lives the Rufus the racing world revered a decade ago.
Today there are some creases around his eyes, the nose that was thrice broken has been straightened and there are 10 new pounds on the 42-year-old, 5'10" frame that in racing trim was as solid as an Offenhauser piston and now tips in at 180. The tacit "So whaddya gonna do about it?" that Jones once carried on the tip of his tongue may have mellowed into a simple "So what?" but the spirit is far from gone.
Jones is very much the family man today, which couldn't exactly be said of him when he was racing. Sort of, maybe, but not entirely. There was this woman named Grayce that everyone thought was Mrs. Jones because she said so and Mr. Jones didn't say not so. They separated in 1966, Jones officially married another lady and Grayce sued Jones for a divorce. To this Jones said, "You can't divorce me, Grayce, I never married you," and Grayce said, "You married me in Tijuana in 1959, Parnelli, don't you remember?" To which Jones replied, "Uh, no, Grayce, I can't say as I do." A Los Angeles Superior Court judge decided that an annulment was appropriate under the circumstances, and the relationship was legally dissolved. Grayce got a settlement.
May 16, 1976
That other lady Jones married is his attractive wife Judy, who has borne him two towheaded sons, Parnell Velco (P.J. Jr.), seven, and Peter Page, three, each as fast and fearless as his father (P.J. on hockey skates, Peter in a Go-kart). The Joneses live in Rolling Hills, Calif., an exclusive peninsular community of the sort that employs a 24-hour security guard at the entrance.
Jones is now president of Parnelli Jones Enterprises, a company which, among other smaller ventures, distributes American wheels and Firestone tires and Gabriel shocks—and, more familiarly to the public, fields a USAC team around a car called the Parnelli. This year the car will be powered by an English-made Cosworth-Ford engine, a modified Formula I V-8, and most likely will be the only Cosworth in the 500. Chances are it also will be in the front row on race day.
Jones' metamorphosis from driver to businessman was smooth, quiet and relatively painless. There were no false starts after he drove his last mile at Indy in 1967. Oh, he has glanced over his shoulder at driving a couple of times—most notably in 1970, when he went road racing and won five of 11 races to capture the SCCA Trans-Am championship for Ford's Mustang. And even today Jones enters off-road races with a highly modified Chevy Blazer, but he does it just for kicks—and a little cash money—which hasn't stopped him from being the fastest man between two cacti.
Jones never went back to try Indy that one more time. He retired from high-speed, high-risk, high-pressure driving when he felt it was time, which may have actually been before it was time. "Keep trying to race forever, and you'll end up on your nob," he said. Race drivers know that; they say it all the time. But saying it and believing it are two different things. Jones was smart enough to mean it, not simply mouth it, and disciplined enough to prove he meant it.
Such conservatism at first seems out of place from a man famous for an all-out approach to racing, an approach that made him a winner in the first place. But a man can't be a winner unless he is first a survivor, and Jones is, above all else, a survivor in a profession where survivors are scarce. When other drivers were crashing and burning, Jones was slipping through their wreckage; when other owners were giving up and going home, back to the security of their fried-chicken franchises, Jones was signing sponsors so he could field a team that was to win Indy twice (1970-71 with Al Unser driving) and the USAC championship three times (1970, Unser; 1971-72, Joe Leonard). There were setbacks, to be sure, as in 1966 when a car he campaigned called the Shrike proved to be something of a bomb for its driver-owner. But he learned, and he has changed himself enough to survive while in his soul he remains the same pugnacious Parnelli who stalked the dirt tracks throughout the '50s. He's a dinosaur of sorts, only now the dinosaur is wearing alligator shoes.
There is a fellow dinosaur in Jones' life, housed in the Speedway's new infield museum. Age hasn't withered it one whit. It's still as gorgeous as the day it was born, long and sleek and shapely, armored in pearlescent lacquer and gold leaf. A name like Agajanian Willard Battery Special just isn't right for a thing of such beauty. Watson-Offenhauser isn't much better. Even Ol' Calhoun, the sobriquet Jones gave it for no particular reason other than affection, doesn't really fit.
The affair between Jones and Ol' Calhoun was symbiotic; together they ruled the Brickyard for four years. Ol' Calhoun raced five years altogether, which is about three years longer than the competitive life of a modern Indy car. They won only in 1963. That was the controversial race in which front-engined, solid-axle Ol' Calhoun split its oil tank and laid down a slippery trail that held off Jim Clark and his slick little rear-engined Lotus-Ford. It was also the race that led to Jones' defending his and Calhoun's honor by punching the late Eddie Sachs in the nose.
Everyone knew Ol' Calhoun should have won more than once. But how do you fight things like Jones' getting smacked in the forehead with a piece of metal while leading in 1961, his rookie year (he continued, peering through goggles filling with blood that dripped over an eyebrow), or like a brake line bursting while he was leading in 1962 (he continued with no brakes, slowing Ol' Calhoun for pit stops by crashing into tires thrown in the path by his crew) or like Ol' Calhoun finally burning out—literally, in white flames—while Jones was leading in 1964, the car's final race.
Ironically, the race for which Jones is most remembered was 1967's, a year that doesn't rest easy with Ol' Calhoun. That year Parnelli led the 500 at will in the bulbous STP turbine car until a transmission bearing failed three laps before the finish. The gremlins that plagued Ol' Calhoun seemed to have transferred their affections to the turbine.
But Jones can't really complain; kind spirits have been protecting him from gremlins for most of his life. How else could he have survived his teen-age years in Torrance, Calif.? When he got his driver's license he discovered he liked his hot rod more than his English teacher, so he quit school and earned money for fresh fenders, which he used a lot of, by buying junked cars and dismantling them for scrap metal. But before he gave a car the ax, he would have a little fun with it. Young Rufus' idea of fun was to play chicken with trees. Or to wind an old car up to a clanking 30 or 40 mph before an audience of his peers, and crank the steering wheel east, which would send it teetering along on two wheels for a while before it thunked over on its side—or top. If there had been demolition derbies in those days, Rufus would have found his calling at 16.
Instead, he waited until he was 17. It was entirely predictable that he would discover jalopy racing, which was only one small step removed from deliberately destroying junkers.
For nearly five years Jones was the hot dog of the California Jalopy Association, as well as being the all-classes champion of the infield. Often his parents, although they had been divorced when he was 15, would sit together in the stands and watch their boy take on all comers. Then, the races over, Commodore Paul Jones, at various times an orange picker and shipyard worker, and his ex-wife Dovie, a nurse, would go out to the parking lot, climb into separate cars and race each other away from the track.
Parnelli was no less combative. Once, another driver got in his way during a race—which marked the man as being either very green or very bold or very dumb. Immediately after the race Jones charged after the driver on foot. When Parnelli reached the car, the man wouldn't budge from his seat, so Jones climbed over the hood, stomped onto the roof and jumped up and down until the sky fell in on the poor guy's head. Jones was young and hard and cocky and fearless, and never gave a bloody inch. He figured you could recognize a good driver by the number of dents on his fender, and his cars usually looked as if they had been beaten by a duffel bag full of bowling balls. His temerity was revealed in his race strategy: "All it takes is guts, and I'm the bravest bastard in the whole damn world."
He became a versatile one, too. He moved up to midgets and sprint cars, stock cars (where the NASCAR drivers never really accepted him) and sports cars (where they never understood him). In 1964 Jones entered his first sports car race, the L. A. Times Grand Prix at Riverside, Calif. against the likes of Dan Gurney, Bruce McLaren and Jim Clark, world-renowned Formula I drivers. Jones drove a King Cobra Ford entered by Texan Carroll Shelby. He melted a clutch in practice and missed qualifying, so he started the heat race in the last row with his clutchless Cobra's rear wheels elevated on a jack and the transmission engaged. When the flag dropped, Jones' foot was already on the floor. The crew jerked the jack away, and the Cobra snaked off in a wild wiggle. Parnelli ran off the circuit during the race, and still finished third. For the main event the crew installed a fresh clutch, and a bigger rearview mirror, at Jones' request. "I want to be able to see the looks on the faces of the guys behind me," he said.
He won by 35 seconds over Roger Penske, with another burned-out clutch. After the race the brake pedal was bent backward. "They make them sports cars kinda fragile, don't they," Jones said in Victory Circle.
Off the track Jones' instinct for survival steered him away from hangers-on who could bleed him and toward men who would help his career. First there was Omar Danielson, an auto wrecker, conveniently enough. Danielson sponsored Jones through his jalopy years and played guidance counselor-cum father figure. He explained to Jones that if he wanted to be a champion, he would have to turn his back on whiskey and women, neither of which has ever been Jones' weakness anyhow, and stop hanging out with punks who carried tire irons stuffed in their boots, slightly more difficult to do. Danielson also claims he tagged him with the nickname "Parnelli" because it rhymed with Nellie, a particularly persistent female admirer.
Next there was J. C. Agajanian, a forthright Armenian and a respected USAC car owner and race promoter. Jones, despite his self-confidence when he was within arm's reach of a steering wheel, was too shy to introduce himself to Agajanian, but a formal introduction wasn't necessary; Agajanian could easily see that Parnelli had INDY MATERIAL stamped on his soul, and it was he who eventually sent Jones to Indy behind the wheel of Ol' Calhoun.
Agajanian was more than Jones' car owner. One day he said, "Parnelli, you don't need all this prize money you're earning; let me invest it for you." Those are words that are usually accompanied by knocking the ash off a fat cigar with a beringed finger and a twist on the end of a mustache. And even if Agajanian has the cigar and the rings and the mustache, he is no con artist, which is not to say he is anything less than shrewd. Coming from Agajanian, the offer was safe, even with nothing more binding than promises, and it proved very profitable to Jones.
Agajanian tried to persuade Jones to drive Ol' Calhoun at Indy in 1960, its maiden year, but Jones didn't feel he was ready. The ride was given to another rookie, Lloyd Ruby, who started 12th and finished seventh. Just as Jones would decide on his own when to quit Indy, the decision when to start was his alone, and his rejection of Agajanian's offer had come as a surprise. In a practice session in 1960, Parnelli had already appeared to prove his worth—in fact, he had been flagged off the track for going too fast. Jones later became Firestone's favorite test driver, not only because walls did not intimidate him. but also because he had a rare gift that enabled him to recall a car's response to virtually every crack and ripple in a track's surface. This remarkable memory still contributes to his skill as an off-road racer. It is said he can bounce the length of Baja and remember every rock and cactus and puckerbush and sand wash and gulley and armadillo on the road.
When Jones did tackle Indy the next year he was more than ready, and soon discovered that it was possible to actually slide a car through the turns. It was subtle and tricky to be sure; still, Jones became a master of the four-wheel drift at Indianapolis. There are many who argue that Parnelli's skill at the Brickyard is unsurpassed by anyone, including three-time winner A. J. Foyt.
That 1961 race was the first of Foyt's victories. The rivalry between Jones and Foyt—P.J. and A.J.—became the most celebrated in American motor racing. In 1965, with Ford Motor Company embarking on what would be a multimillion-dollar effort to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans and simultaneously weighing the possibility of going Formula I racing, Foyt and Jones were called separately to the company's corporate headquarters to talk about joining the team.
"They asked who was a better driver, me or A.J.," recalls Jones, "and I was trying to be modest, so I said, 'Well, I guess I'd have to say A.J.; he's got me in the record books.' I knew they would ask A.J. the same question, and I could picture him standing up and telling them, 'I'm the greatest.' "
As it turned out, both eventually drove for Ford, Foyt winning Le Mans in 1967 and Jones driving both Mercurys and Fords in the Trans-Am.
After Jones won Indy in 1963 he invested in a Torrance auto dealership owned by Vei Miletich, a man who has been at Jones' side even longer than Agajanian. This deal provided Jones with space to open a Firestone racing tire distributorship as well as someone to oversee it while he was off racing.
But Jones is not just a front man whose business responsibilities consist of letting his name be hyphenated with someone else's on a billboard. For example, he foresaw the fat-tire trend, and ordered all of Firestone's obsolete Indy racing tires, which the company was more than willing—downright overjoyed—to unload. The people at Firestone thought Jones was crazy until they saw the high school kids forming lines outside Jones' door to get the tires for their '55 Chevys.
Today Jones and Miletich are the controlling partners in Parnelli Jones Enterprises, which owns seven Firestone retail stores in the Los Angeles area and distributes racing tires in 11 Western states. Miletich playfully refers to Jones as the company's recreation director because Jones spends most of his time puttering around the shop. Parnelli is not out of place surrounded by cork walls and couches, but he usually fidgets his way through business conferences, playing with gadgets on the desk. It's not that he's uncomfortable, he's just bored. If Jones could have his way, he would tinker with his Blazer until it was time to make a decision, then come in the office and make it. Indecisiveness has never been one of Jones' problems, and his business talent is for cutting through the fog and settling things. Sometimes the decision can be rough, like this year's, when no sponsor could be found to field a Formula I Parnelli for Mario Andretti. What had been a promising effort was cut short by Jones, and Andretti was released from his USAC commitments to the Vel's-Parnelli team as well.
Jones' approach to business is the same as his approach to racing, which is the same as his approach to life. There is nothing complicated about his style. His decisions become convictions as firm as his chin and lead to actions as solid as the wall at the Brickyard. Damn the torpedoes, damn the wall, damn the car in front of me. If we're going to do it, let's do it. Charge.