J.C. Agajanian was the man...
J.C. Agajanian was the man who gave Parnelli his big break when he got him to quit Sprint Cars and graduate into Champ Cars. Agajanian was more than a promoter and car owner; he was like a father to Parnelli. Mr. Agajanian knew that a race driver’s career was short lived, instilling into Parnelli how important it was to save his money and invest it properly. Parnelli was counseled by the best, which enabled him to become a winner in business and team ownership.
“One day our driver, Ernie Cornelson (who was killed in 1957 racing a Stock Car at Marchbanks Speedway, aka Hanford Raceway, in Central California), couldn’t make the race one night and we had to find a driver who wasn’t already driving. I suggested Parnelli to my husband and he just laughed. ‘I put that guy in my car and I’d be taking it home in an envelope!’ But I convinced him Parnelli would not intentionally crash our car, and won him over. Parnelli tried out our ’32 Ford sedan. It had the Flying Shadow painted on it as it had dark gray primer. Parnelli was very respectful of the opportunity. He won the Heat Race, he won the Trophy Dash, and he went on to win the Main Event that night. After that I told my husband Parnelli would be there for him.
“After that night Parnelli came to our house and saw all of the work my husband, Ummie, had to do building race cars for other people. Parnelli said, ‘I’ll just help you.’ There was so much work that he would stay over and he finally moved in with us.
“People thought we were closer, but I was like a mama to him. The reason we have remained close friends all these years is Parnelli never forgot where he came from.”
Gardena Stadium was located...
Gardena Stadium was located at 139th Street and Western Avenue in Gardena and not only hosted the NASCAR Pacific Coast Late Model Stock Car Races but the California Jalopy Association races were carried on TV with 300,000 television viewers bonded to their sets watching Bill Welsh call the Jalopy races on Channel 11. Drivers like Parnelli, who won in jalopies, NASCAR Pacific Coast late-model Stocks, and Sprint Cars at Gardena Stadium, became household names and faces.
“In 1955 I started driving Midgets and Sprint Cars,” Parnelli continues. “The first year I drove Midgets, I finished Second in the championship. I was two-time National Sprint Car Champion. I also won the Midwest Sprint Car Championship in 1960. I was driving Modifieds as well that Omar [Danielson] and I built. I drove for Omar; he owned Firestone Auto Wrecking in South Gate who was really like a father to me. I was making about $50 a week racing and putting it in the bank. I was living at home with my parents. I kept thinking if I could make about $10,000 racing I’d never have to work again.
“At that time I was winning at least 25 percent of my races. I look back on my days and think how dangerous it was; I’m lucky to be here. If I had to do it over again I’d cut out that part of my career. I was upside down twice in a Midget but never in a Sprint Car.”
The public may not remember...
The public may not remember who won the 1967 Indianapolis 500 (A.J. Foyt), but there’s a good chance they know who lost it. Parnelli came in Sixth after leading for 171 laps. “In 1968 Granatelli wanted me to drive the Lotus wedge-shape turbine car (dubbed the Lotus 56). I’m a practical engineer and did all my own chassis setups; I just didn’t think that car was safe. After driving the Lotus that I had driven for Colin Chapman (founder of Lotus), pieces were breaking. I was concerned about his equipment. Anyway, it was pretty fragile.” (English driver Mike Spence hit the wall in practice for the 500 in the Lotus turbine car and was killed.) Later the USAC banned both the turbine engine and the use of a four-wheel-drive chassis. “Parnelli had retired from driving open wheel,” Granatelli states, “and told me he wouldn’t drive an open-cockpit car unless he had a lock on the Indy 500 race. When we tested the car, we never once had to change a spring rate or setting, the car handled perfectly. It went anywhere you
A lot of methanol fumes have gone over the pit wall since the 1967 Indianapolis 500 but the race is still fresh in the minds of Andy Granatelli, known as “Mr. 500”, and Parnelli, two veteran Indianapolis competitors who’ve known both exhilaration and bitter disappointment at the Brickyard.
Granatelli’s jubilation came with his driver Mario Andretti winning the 1969 race. But the heartbreak for both was the loss after leading the race 171 laps then coasting into the pits with just three laps to go.
Parnelli is far too busy to dwell on that race, yet his comments to me were quite candid: “I blame myself for the Turbine Car not finishing the 500. (“Silent Sam” as it was called by the press, was so quiet that Parnelli could hear the brake calipers grabbing the discs.) It had a lot of torque and I put a lot of pressure on the quick-change gears in the rearend, hustling it out of the pits like I did. This was a four-wheel-drive car; it hooked up real hard with all wheels pulling.”
As for Granatelli, he’s approaching his 90th and is doing quite well in Montecito, California. The public was very much intrigued with the idea of a turbine-powered vehicle because of the vast amount of press the STP IndyCar received, but as quickly as the interest level rose, it faded after the loss.