At a young age Parnelli Jones would jump the fence by the outhouse at Carrell Speedway to watch his idol Troy Ruttman run from the back of the pack and win races in his track roadster. Ruttman would go on to win the ultimate prize, the Indy 500, in 1952, driving for J.C. Agajanian in the No. 98 car. Parnelli would realize his dream by winning the Indy 500 in a car that carried the No. 98 for Mr. Agajanian in 1963.
How good was he? Two-time Indy 500 winner, the late Rodger Ward told writer/editor Richard Parks, who spent considerable time with Ward in his later years, “Parnelli Jones was the most talented race car driver I have ever raced against.”
Remember “Whoa Nellie” Dick Lane of KTLA Los Angeles who announced the Jalopy Races on TV
It would be impossible to cover Parnelli’s extensive racing history and his business interests (he owned seven Firestone tire stores in the L.A. area, plus he was the distributor for Firestone racing tires in 11 Western states) in the pages allotted here.
It was his early days as a hot rodder that laid the foundation to his success and certainly the people who saw his fiery desire to win in racing, and in life, that his story is about.
Being smack dab in the middle of hot rod country, as a young lad, where racetracks of every configuration were on top of one another, Parnelli took the reins early on and went racing, horse racing that is. Read on.
The photo of Parnelli sliding on the outside in his ’34 Ford five-window almost looks chor
Rufus Parnell “Parnelli” Jones, of Palos Verdes, California, was born in Texarkana, Arkansas, in 1933 but moved to Fallbrook, California (near San Diego, known as the Avocado Capital of the United States), when he was 2 years old. His dad took a job working in the area’s avocado groves, but later moved the family to Torrance when Parnelli was 7, where his dad worked as a crane operator and his mom as a nurse.
“I can remember when I was 7 we used to go to church in Oceanside about 20 miles away from Fallbrook on Sunday and my mom (Dovie) would put me on her lap and let me steer her car,” Parnelli begins. “My dad (Commodore) would sit on the righthand side; my mom did most of the driving.”
“After Billy Calder spent two years in Korea, we started going to the races again. Billy a
Parnelli went to Narbonne High School in Harbor City (near Torrance). However, while in school, and before he got involved in controlling hundreds of horses, he gained a love for one burro: “I hung around a horse stable, I loved horses,” Parnelli says, “and I had a burro. There was a guy at the stable who trained stallions to do tricks and I was able to see what he did and I trained my burro to do tricks when I was around 12.
“I used to ride quarter horses in amateur-type races. I was small and a good rider and the owners liked me to ride their horses. But I grew and suddenly I was too big to ride their horses anymore. I learned to break horses to ride and got my own horse to ride. I sold my horse for $200. I took that money to buy my first hot rod, a ’23 T-bucket with a Model A engine with two carburetors on it with a little box on the back.
“My next car was a gray primered ’32 three-window coupe with no fenders on it. There was a dirt field that had a quarter-mile dirt circle track that was used for horses, and I had fun hot lapping my ’32 around the track. I didn’t know I was going to be a race driver then. I upgraded to a ’40 Ford coupe. I knocked the transmission out of it all the time. I also had a ’40 sedan.
“I didn’t graduate from high school. I didn’t like Narbonne and went to Torrance High. I didn’t like that either. At that point I was involved in cars and just quit school.