KEN JOHNSON: Reminiscing with a fellow ‘car guy’ |

KEN JOHNSON: Reminiscing with a fellow ‘car guy’

Ken Johnson
Free Press Opinion Columnist
Courtesy | Ken Johnson
Staff Photo |

Fifty years ago come the end of May, a guy named Rufus Jones won the Indianapolis 500. In a breeze, by the way. I mean he led 167 of the 200 laps.

You may remember him by his nickname, since that’s the name he uses. Parnelli Jones. A genuine legend.

Growing up in Grand Junction back in those good old days pretty well committed boys to being “car guys” and I never recovered from that particular affliction.

So a week ago I ventured out to Long Beach to see the 39th running of the Indycar race there; a raucous, loud speedfest through city streets, down at the marina.

In case you didn’t see the results, Japanese driver Takuma Sato won the race, his first-ever win in three years of Banzai driving in the open-wheel Indy racers. Sato was driving for the A.J. Foyt team, which hadn’t won a race since 2002. (Of course, A.J. himself won Indy four times, way back when.)

Parnelli and A.J. dueled at Indy and on tracks all across America in those days, too.

Parnelli tried Indy seven times. Bad luck, broken cars, a fiery pit stop while he was leading, and other sundry problems kept him out of Victory Lane except for 1963. Oh, and that year he beat Jimmy Clark in the rear-engined Lotus.

This is all just background to introduce you to Parnelli. It’s fresh in my mind because I went to Bobby Rahal’s Road Racing Drivers Club dinner in Long Beach. Along with nearly 400 others, including old timers like Dan Gurney and current drivers like Dario Franchitti.

And I somehow wound up at Parnelli’s table, seated next to him. How’s that for luck? (For sure, I should have bought a lottery ticket that day!)

Now 80, Parnelli is one of the special ones who looks more like 50. Maybe his incredible driving career had something to do with that, who’s to know? I mean, when you’re having fun every day, why worry about age?

Parnelli’s career in a nutshell: Dirt tracks for years. Midgets and sprint cars. Indy cars. Indianapolis itself. Developing the first Cosworth V-8 racing engine to outdo the Offenhausers. NASCAR wins and sports car wins. Hiring Al Unser Sr. to drive for his team, Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing — a combo that won Indy in 1970 and 1971, two of Unser’s four Indy victories. Building a car to compete, and then doing it, in Formula 1, with Mario Andretti as his driver. One of the team’s last Formula 1 races was the Long Beach Grand Prix in 1976.

Twenty or more years later, Parnelli won the Toyota celebrity Pro-Am race at Long Beach. He won it in a Camry. His fellow celebrity competitors got a huge driving lesson that day.

By coincidence, I had met Parnelli once before. He and about 35 or so other race drivers were on Wally Dallenbach’s “Colorado 500,” a special tour Wally put on through the backroads and trails of Colorado’s high country. Wally was, of course, another Indy race driver, and later the race steward for CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams), which ran Indy car races for over 20 years. He has been a director of Alpine Banks for a lot of years, too.

We had conspired to have the tour stop at “me mom’s little mountain cabin,” aka the Redstone Castle, for tea. Or something like that. Fifteen or 16 of them stayed there overnight before heading for Wally’s ranch on the Frying Pan above Basalt for the next day’s end-of-tour celebration.

Wally has raised over $1.2 million using the Colorado 500 for fun. Just simple little rides over places like Engineer Pass or down the Black Bear into Telluride. Sometimes in the rain.

Parnelli said he loved it. Of course, he also loved anything that combined dirt and speed. For example, winning the Baja 1000-miler down the unforgiving desert of Baja, Calif., in both 1971 and 1972, in a Ford Bronco, somewhat modified. The race was both mentally and physically demanding, as well as dangerous.

“I told James Garner once that it was like being in a 24-hour plane crash,” Parnelli said.

So chatting with Parnelli at the Long Beach dinner brought back a host of memories for me. For him, he reminisced on how close he had been to a second Indy 500, in the Andy Granatelli/STP turbine car. He had the race in the bag, having led 171 laps, until four laps from the end when a differential bearing went sour. He still finished fourth.

Race driver, businessman with Parnelli Jones tire stores, author. A true American legend.

Parnelli has co-written his autobiography: “As a Matter of Fact, I Am Parnelli Jones.”

I’m thinking I’ll get me a copy — hopefully autographed.

Ken is founder of the Grand Junction Free Press and former owner/publisher of The Daily Sentinel. He spends his time between the Grand Valley and California.

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