A couple of years ago I was able to sit down in Parnelli Jones’ office in Torrance, California, and talk about his racing career. The interview was informal, and we really had no intention on publishing the exchange on OneDirt at the time. With a change in ownership of the magazine title, we pulled out this interview, dusted it off, and prepared to tell a story that deserved to be told. Here is how the conversation went:
OneDirt: Out here in the West, you are thought of as an Indianapolis 500 Champion, a sprint car racer, and a desert racer. But back East, with the vintage ’60s NASCAR guys, they tend to think of you as a stock car guy. Why is that?
Parnelli Jones: Because I came out in NASCAR at that time, from the local organizations, the sprints, midgets, and stuff like that, I was somebody that came into their organization and they remember me from that. In the West, I started with jalopy racing on Sunday afternoons. They were televised every week, so I got a lot of recognition from that.
OD: The story that often gets told is one of a fiery young man that happened to get involved with J.C. Agajanian, and he was able to temper your anger. How close to the truth is that?
PJ: First of all, I didn’t finish high school and I was a little rugged. I kinda had a chip on my shoulder. Not exactly a chip, but I wanted to be somebody people respected. I didn’t turn down many fights. I didn’t start too many of them either. I was kind of a rough kid, like when I got into racing, I obviously had a few ups and downs, especially in the jalopy races.
In many of those jalopy events, we used to have as many as 200 cars show up to qualify. They would only take something like 16 cars for the main event. So, you had to fight for every inch you got. It actually hurt my career in a way, because I learned how to go fast and I didn’t learn how to go long enough. I didn’t learn to take care of my equipment and that sort of thing. Kinda like a quarter-horse, you know. Full bore out of the shoot instead of pacing yourself like a thoroughbred.
OD: So the jalopy races weren’t that long, were they?
PJ: Yeah, 30 laps. But they had heats, a B-semi, and a hooligan. The races were held at Culver City, and later moved to Gardena. It wasn’t actually Ascot, it was Gardena Speedway, which was up on Western Avenue, just north of Rosecrest.
[Ed note: Usually the top 16 cars were in the main event and the next 16 were in the B-Semi. All of the non-qualifiers were eligible for the Hooligan race, which lined up all the non-qualifiers in a three-abreast field as many as they could fit on the track in a scramble type event].
OD: What was it like to run in the jalopy races and knowing if you won you were going to get into a fight in the pits?
PJ: No, it wasn’t quite like that. I’ve seen it where the 16 cars that start the main event and almost finish exactly like they started. Side by side. I would be in the back and boogered a couple of guys and passed a couple of cars but that was all I could do. There was no fighting after a race like that.
I only had one real instance out there. Well actually, I had two. I got into it with one of the guys at the track, and we had a little thing goin’. And later, my family, that was my mother and my sister, came to the races. They got up there and some people would be cussing me out from the stands, you know? I told my mother “just don’t pay no attention to ‘em” ’cause she’s was gonna get upset. This one night, one of the their guys just purposely stuck me in the wall. They had a meeting at the track ’cause I got out of the car and punched the guy. At the meeting, they were deciding what they were gonna do, suspend me or whatever. So they wanted to know if I’d continue it. I said “well I guarantee I’m not gonna let it go” or somethin’ like that.
When the thing was over, the guy’s brother came over and says “I heard you gonna continue the thing when we go back to the track.” I said “you can make that a promise.” He took a swing at me and I beat the shit the out of him. After that, we got along pretty good. But you know, you’re right. I had to do a lot of smoothing out.
OD: How did you get to Indy from jalopies?
PJ: What happened was … I could have went to Indy a couple years before I did, but that was in cars that weren’t top notch or whatever. I thought, “Well shit. When I go to Indy, I wanna make sure I have a decent ride. So I went back in 1960, and ran the Sprint cars in USAC. I ran a whole year in 1959 with USAC guys before I even joined USAC. Later that year, I ran the IMCA for a while, tearing my car up. Y’know, I got dents all over it and backed it through the wall in Kansas City. USAC was short cars down in Houston, Texas, Foyt’s country.
I showed up there. Bettenhausen, Sachs, Foyt, and all of the top USAC sprint car guys were there with their gorgeous cars with chrome and everything. I come in with my car that looks like a piece of shit. We had beat the tail out because I had backed it in the wall, and it was aluminum. It looked like a sack of walnuts. Anyway, I went out and set quick time. I won the heat race and then it came down to the main event. I was on the pole and the throttle stuck. I went into the turn, reached down and grabbed it. The car went up and damn near hit the wall. I dropped back a ways, but came back to finish third. I knew right then I could go and run with the big boys.
Then In 1960, I joined USAC. I started at the little 500 and finished second. A couple of nights before I ran a midget at Kokomo. That was my first USAC race as a member. I went back on the Midwest sprint car championship tour and also ran the East Coast sprint car tour. Foyt won the East Coast and I won the West Coast. Or the western part of the sprint car deal.
OD: So did Agajanian seek you out or did you guys just cross paths?
PJ: No, it was different with Aggie. He knew about me and we were good friends and all that, but he had a good driver with Lloyd Ruby, and it wasn’t in the cards at that time. I was driving for Fike plumbing at the time, a plumbing guy with a sprint car from Phoenix. He bought Jimmy Bryan’s old champ car. I ran it in a couple of races, but they didn’t have a pavement car. At that time you had to run dirt and pavement.
Johnny Paulson, who was a driver himself, built this car for Cheesborough, and took it to Indianapolis. He got there late and they didn’t get to run it. It was a lay down, Quinn Epperly car. Because I had been running a whole year and hadn’t done Indy – hadn’t even done as much as a driver’s test or anything else. Paulson asked him [Cheesborough] if I could take a ride in his car at the speedway during a tire test. Tony Bettenhausen was doin’ the tire test and I thought “man, I should run a couple laps.” I did, and the USAC guys come out there jumping up and down like a Chevrolet pushrod. I ran too fast. The record was like 147, I went around at 140.
I didn’t even think I was running that fast. They chewed my ass and I told Paulson, “Shit, I can’t believe I ran that fast. I think I can break the track record in that car right now.” He said, “You gotta be kidding?”
I told him that I wasn’t, so he put Tony Bettenhausen in the car. He wanted to see how good it was. Tony went out and ran within a half mile an hour below the record. Of course he falls in love with the car. Tony was driving for Lindsey Hopkins at the time. He tells Lindsey “You either buy me that car, get me one built, or I’m going to drive for Aggie.”
Tony Liked me, so he told Aggie, “If Hopkins don’t buy me that car or get one built, I’ll come drive for you. If he does, then you’d better get Parnelli.” So that is kinda the back way I came to Aggie’s team, even though we knew each other before.
OD: And that is how the rough and tumble kid joined forces with a legendary promoter to create history! He is currently the oldest living Indianapolis 500 winner, and still looks like he could get behind the wheel and compete seriously.
Parnelli Jones started in the dirt and ended on the desert sand racing SCORE trucks. Along the way, he managed to get elected into more than 20 Halls of Fame, including the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame, the Nationals Sprint Car Hall of Fame, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, and the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame.