Parnelli Jones Raced On Cutting Edge Of The Indy 500’s Most Inventive Era

Photo: Bob D’Olivo/The Enthusiast Network (Getty Images)
Photo: Bob D’Olivo/The Enthusiast Network (Getty Images)

Parnelli Jones died of natural causes on Monday at 90 years old at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrence, California, his hometown. The 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner was one of the defining drivers in American racing during the 1960s. Jones was arguably the fastest driver in an era of unprecedented change when the 1950s roadsters were swept away by rear-engined machines and turbine-powered monsters.

Jones first arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1961 with accolades from sprint car and late-model stock car racing. He would split Rookie of the Year honors with Bobby Marshman after a 12th-place finish. The next year, he was the first to break the 150-mph barrier in qualifying.

In the 1963 Indy 500, Jones would earn his place alongside the Speedway’s legends. He held off Jim Clark’s rear-engined Lotus 29 to win the race. However, controversy still surrounds the event’s conclusion. Jones’ Watson roadster was leaking fuel during the closing laps and race officials considered black flagging, which would have forced Jones to yield the lead. After a heated arguement between team owner J. C. Agajanian and officials, the flag was never show and Jones won.

Jones would get his own chance at the wheel of a pioneering maching in 1967. He was offered the chance to race Andy Granatelli’s STP-Paxton Turbocar. The four-wheel-drive Indy special was powered a 550-horsepower aircraft turbine. Despite being 400 pounds overweight and having a three-second throttle lag, it was the hands-down favorite to win. According to Speed Sport, Jones said:


“So I decided I’d do what Jim Hurtubise did during the ‘63 race. He’d dropped back at the start, then pulled to the outside and passed a half dozen cars, including me, to lead the first lap. So when Gordy dove down, I stayed high and zipped around everyone. Mario [Andretti] gave me the finger when I waved as I went by him.”

With only four laps left, a $6 transmission bearing gave out on the Turbocar. Jones had led 171 laps of the 200-lap classic. He would never race in the Indy 500 again. While Jones would go on to race in other categories and become an even more successful team owner, he will remain inseparable from his seven-year stint as a driver at Indianapolis.

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