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Obituary: Parnelli Jones, the great American motor-racing all-rounder, 1933-2024


If he wasn’t the greatest American driver of his generation, Rufus ‘Parnelli’ Jones was surely a candidate. This brilliant all-rounder, who died on June 4, 2024 aged 90, was a threat regardless of discipline. He was the man to beat on ovals whatever the surface or venue, and proved just as handy racing with a roof over his head. Jones was also a prolific winner off-road, in hillclimbs, and heaven knows what else besides. If that wasn’t enough, he was a garlanded team owner. Such were his achievements as a wheelman, the latter part of his career tends to be overshadowed, or at the very least not appreciated as much as it should.

Jones rarely competed outside of his homeland, which ensured that his name wasn’t revered on the global stage. It deserved to be, given that he raced wheel to wheel with the cream of the international crop during the 1960s and into the ’70s. He often bested them. Born on August 12, 1933, in Texarkana, Arkansas, Jones was named in honour of a local dignitary, Judge Rufus Parnell. His family upped sticks and moved to Torrence, California, when he was seven, and ten years later he was illegally racing on dirt ovals. Jones lied about his age and accordingly adopted an alias, pal Billy Calder daubing ‘Parnellie’ on the door of his ’34 Ford. 

This was subsequently shortened to Parnelli, and Jones soon joined that rarefied elite of sportsmen and women for whom only one name signifies instant recognition. In short order, he claimed more than 100 wins in jalopies, before graduating to NASCAR’s Pacific Coast Late Model Series in which he racked up 15 victories. This brought him to the attention of team owner Vel Miletich in 1956. Their names would soon became intertwined, Jones going on to claim three successive USAC Sprint Car titles in 1960-62. His tally of 25 Feature wins was matched by his number of triumphs aboard Midgets.

Parnelli Jones’ in his’ Mercury at the 1965 Riverside 500.

Promotor JC Agajanian brought this young phenom to The Brickyard in 1961. Jones qualified fifth for his first tilt at the Indianapolis 500, and he led for 27 laps. Despite his car losing a cylinder, and with blood filling his goggles after his face was struck by a piece of metal, he came home 12th. Two years later, this toughest of toughnuts won in his Roadster ‘Ol’ Calhoun’ despite it leaking oil, this being the year that Jim Clark had famously been a threat for victory aboard his Lotus ‘funny car’. Black flags had been conspicuously absent, but Jones’ luck deserted him in 1967. He came within three laps of winning again, only to retire his STP-Paxton turbine car after a ‘six-dollar transmission bearing’ failed. 

A few years earlier, he had excelled in a Lotus during sporadic outings, and Colin Chapman offered him a Works drive for as long as he wanted, wherever he wanted. Ever astute, Jones reasoned that he would play second fiddle to Clark (who was also a Jones fan). And besides, it would require taking a significant pay cut. He quit driving single-seaters in 1967, having competed in a reduced schedule after marrying his great love Judy, but he wasn’t about to hang up his helmet completely.

Jones had already bagged three USAC Stock Car titles (1960-62), and he became a frontrunner in Trans-Am. His hard-charging drives aboard bright orange Bud Moore Ford Mustangs further bolstered his legend, Jones claiming five wins from 11 starts in 1970 alone.

Off-piste, he won the 1963 International Pikes Peak Hill Climb in a Bill Stroppe-built Mercury Marauder, and later the Mexican 1000 off-road race (twice), in addition to the Baja 400 and Mint 500. 

In truth, it’s easier to list disciplines in which Jones didn’t stand out, if not dominate. As a team owner, Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing participated in everything from off-road events to Formula 5000 via drag racing and Champ Car. It also sealed 1970-71 Indy 500 honours. Only success in Formula 1 eluded the team, Mario Andretti driving for the squad from late 1974 to early ’76. There were a few points finishes, but racing in Europe was clearly a distraction. 

Jones and arch-rival AJ Foyt joined forces in 1978, which in time led to ‘Super Tex’ assuming complete control. Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing was shuttered after it had claimed 53 Champ Car wins. And while subsequent generations of Jones would race, and not without success (and incident), there was only ever one Parnelli.  

Parnelli Jones with the 1972 Viceroy Special.

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