Parnelli Jones holds an the January 2018 issue of SPEED SPORT Magazine. (Steve Shunck photo)

Parnelli Jones Dies At 90 Years Old

ST. CHARLES, Ill. — Auto racing has lost one of its biggest heroes and greatest drivers as 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones passed away of natural causes on Tuesday. He was 90 years old.

The news of his passing was confirmed by his son, P.J. Jones, at 5 p.m. ET. Jones passed away at Torrance Memorial Medical Center with family members at his side.

“I miss him greatly,” P.J. Jones posted on his Facebook page. 

The Torrance, Calif., resident had battled Parkinson’s for the past several years.

Jones was known as a driver who could race anything and drive it to victory. He was as proficient in NASCAR stock cars as he was United States Auto Club (USAC) midgets and sprint cars.

He drove J.C. Agajanian’s roadster to victory in the 1963 Indianapolis 500 and four years later, came within 3-1/2 laps of driving Andy Granatelli’s revolutionary STP Turbine to victory before a $6 ball bearing broke, leaving his car to break in the north end of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after dominating the race and leading 171 laps of the 200-lap race.

Jones was born in Texarkana, Ark., and moved with his family to Fallbrook, Calif., at age two, and then to Torrance, California, at age seven.

He was born during the height of the Great Depression, Jones’ mother named him after a local judge – Rufus Parnell – whom she respected, christening her new son Rufus Parnell Jones. 

At age 17, while racing jalopies (old cars) in Gardena, Calif., the town next to Torrance, Jones was in need of an alias to prevent race officials from learning that he was not yet 18, the legal age needed to compete. 

Lying about his age was easy but racing as “Rufus Jones” would have gotten him thrown out because race fans from Torrance attending would have recognized his name. 

Jones’ school friend, Billy Calder, came up with an idea to solve the problem. There had been a girl in their school named Nellie, and Billy used to tease Jones about her liking him. 

Billy knew Jones’ middle name was Parnell, and he would joke around with him, calling him “Parnellie.” Billy painted the name “Parnellie” on the jalopy door and the rest is racing history. The “e” was dropped somewhere along the way and he’s been known as “Parnelli” ever since. 

Parnelli Jones aboard a stock car. (SPEED SPORT Archives)

He was married to his wife, Judy, on July 15, 1967. The couple had two sons, P.J. and Page Jones. Grandchildren including Jagger, Jace, Jimmy, Joie, Jet and Moxie.

His record at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was brief, but spectacular. He is the first driver to qualify at over 150 mph at Indianapolis in 1962. His four laps were 150.729 mph, 150.150, 150.276 and 150.326 four a four-lap average of 150.370 mph.

He also won the Indianapolis 500 pole in 1963. He was the 1961 Indianapolis 500 Co-Rookie of the Year with Bobby Marshman in 1961.

He made seven Indianapolis 500 starts from 1961-67 and led five of seven IndyCar 500 races for 492 laps.

In the 1965 Indianapolis 500, Jones finished second to Scotsman Jim Clark.

1967 Indianapolis 500, raced Andy Granatelli’s innovative and controversial STP Turbine car, dropping out while leading on lap 197 of 200 when a $6 ball bearing failed, leaving him in sixth place.

He had six USAC Indy car wins, 12 USAC Indy car pole positions in 59 USAC Indy car starts.

His first USAC Indy car start was June 5, 1960, in Milwaukee, Wis.  He started 13th and finished 16th, completing 97 of 100 laps in a race won by Rodger Ward.

He had three Daytona 500 Starts (1960, 1963 & 1964), 25 USAC National Sprint Car Feature wins, 25 USAC National Midget feature wins, 18 of which were after he won the 1963 Indy 500.

Jones had one USAC Midwest Sprint Car Championship (1960), two USAC National Sprint Car Championships (1961 & 1962), one USAC Stock Car Championship (1964).

He also had 22 NASCAR West Coast Stock Car wins, two Pikes Peak Hill Climb Stock Car wins (1963 & 1964) and was the SCCA Can-Am Los Angeles Times 500 winner in 1964.

He was the NASCAR Motor Trend 500 winner in 1967, the SCCA Trans-Am Champion in 1970, had two Baja 500 Off-Road wins in 1970 & 1973, two Baja 1000 Off-Road wins in 1971 and 1972.

He won four NASCAR Cup wins and three NASCAR Cup pole positions in 34 NASCAR Cup starts.

His racing career began in the early 1950s when he began racing Jalopies in Southern California. 

Following numerous wins – estimated at over 100 – he progressed to NASCAR’s Pacific Coast Late Model division, NASCAR Cup, CRA sprint cars, IMCA sprint cars, USAC sprint cars, midgets and Indy cars.

He drove the Indianapolis 500 Pace Car in 1994 (Ford Mustang Cobra) & 1998 (Chevrolet Corvette).

Jones appeared on numerous late night TV shows including “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”

After his driving career was over, he became one of the most successful team owners in his era as co-owner of Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing with California businessman, Vel Miletich.

His car won the 1970 & 1971 Indianapolis 500 winner with driver Al Unser, seven USAC Indy car 500 Mile Race wins (Indianapolis, Pocono and Ontario), 53 USAC Indy car wins, 47 USAC Indy car pole positions, three USAC National Driving Championships (Al Unser 1970, Joe Leonard 1971 & 1972) and two USAC National Dirt Car Championships (Al Unser 1973, Mario Andretti 1974).

He fielded a Formula 1 car with driver Mario Andretti for the final two races of 1974, all 12 races in 1975, and two races in 1976, with a best finish of fourth at Anderstorp, Sweden, in June of 1975.

There were numerous wins in SCCA Formula 5000, AHRA drag racing, NHRA drag racing and Baja Off-Road.

Formed the Indy car “Super Team” with Al Unser, Mario Andretti and Joe Leonard starting with the 1972 season.

Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing at the Indianapolis 500:

Year     Driver                     Start     Finish

1967     George Snider         10  26

1968     George Snider         29  31

1969     Bud Tingelstad        18  15

1970     Al Unser                 1    1

1970     Joe Leonard                  18  24

1971     Al Unser                 5    1

1971     Joe Leonard                  8    19

1972     Al Unser                 19  2

1972     Joe Leonard                  6    3

1972     Mario Andretti        5    8

1973     Joe Leonard                  29  18

1973     Al Unser                 8    20

1973     Mario Andretti        6    30

1974     Al Unser                 26  18

1974     Jan Opperman         32  21

1974     Mario Andretti        5    31

1975     Al Unser                 11  16

1975     Mario Andretti        27  28

1976     Al Unser                 4    7

1977     Al Unser                 3    3

1977     Danny Ongais *      7    20

1978     Danny Ongais *      2    18

1979     A.J. Foyt **                  6    2

*Official entrant was Interscope Racing/Ted Fields

  VPJ Racing provided complete technical and team support.

**Co-entrant with A.J. Foyt Enterprises.