“That’s the Midget that Vel...
“That’s the Midget that Vel Miletich and I owned together,” Parnelli says. That famous partnership between Miletich and Parnelli went far beyond owning a Midget race car. The two formed Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing in 1967, winning Indy with their driver Al Unser in 1970-71 as a race team. Parnelli won Thanksgiving Turkey Night at Ascot Park twice, winning the USAC-sanctioned race in 1964 in the car he’s sitting in (the year after he won Indy) and in 1966. Winning Turkey Night at Ascot was almost a condition for winning the Indy 500, as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, Al and Bobby Unser had done.
“I was 17 years old when I ran my first race car, a ’34 Ford. I didn’t do very well with it. I bought it from my cousin and we took turns driving it. We ran a couple of races at Carrell Speedway with the car on a course shaped like the letter ‘B’. The first turn went back into the infield. My cousin got drafted into the service. He was gone for a couple of years but when he got out we went to another race and I got the bug again to go racing. I had all this desire but no talent because I was wrecking my car week after week.
“I’d run three races a week in the jalopies. We’d run Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino on Saturday night, Carrell Speedway in Gardena on Sunday, and Ventura Raceway on Monday night. We used to have 200 cars show up at Carrell to qualify and they only took 16 cars for the main event.
“Finally a guy, Ummie Paulson, who was a car owner, liked something about me, my desire I guess. After I blew up my engine he offered to build me an engine but also to listen to him. He built an engine and it ran better than mine. I slowed down and quit trying to win every race on the first corner like he told me, and something clicked. I got it all together. Kick ass, don’t take names, beat the hell out of them, whatever it takes to win is what they saw in me before Ummie took me aside.”
Parnelli sitting high in his...
Parnelli sitting high in his Midget on the outside of No. 11: “That was at Ascot. I ran Ascot a lot. I ran late-model Stock Cars there as well. That was near the end of my running open-cockpit cars; I wanted a rollcage around me.” Case in point: Parnelli had a wheel come off his Midget while leading A.J. Foyt during Turkey Night and flipped end over end. “That was one of the few times I was upside down in an open-wheel car.” (Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt Sr., and Darrell Waltrip ran Ascot as well, which closed in 1990.)
Hila “Lady Leadfoot” Sweet, of Cypress, Texas, was not only a racer of repute in her day (she was the first woman to acquire a NASCAR license in 1951) but was responsible for getting drivers, car owners, and the crews together every year for her Racer Reunions that she held from 1988 to 2010.
Sweet, who was Ummie’s wife at the time (she is now married to Bob Sweet), picks up the story: “They had me barred at all the tracks,” she begins, “because when I did win, I won by far. The rules stated after tapping a slower car three times if they wouldn’t move, move them, and that’s what I did and what Parnelli did. And damn right I beat Parnelli more than once.
You say that pristine Ford...
You say that pristine Ford five-window of yours was kinda waded up when you got it and never made it in any of the magazines? Well, maybe that’s it in the photo.
“To us the jalopies were Indy Cars and we had just as much adrenalin and fun driving them as anything on tracks anywhere,” Sweet emphasizes. The jalopies (California Jalopy Association) compared to track roadsters (California Roadster Association), which ran on the same dirt tracks, were considered a bit low rent. Maybe it was the nomenclature. No different than the Southern California Timing Association that ran only roadsters versus Russetta Timing Association that ran closed cars. Russetta carried no stigma with the lakes guys or spectators.
“I was instrumental in Parnelli getting his first decent ride in the jalopies. Parnelli became my buddy, protector, and good friend. Parnelli was 20 when I first saw him at the Orange Show Stadium in San Bernardino.
“All our husbands either owned or drove race cars and when I wasn’t racing myself, us girls would get together every week and watch the races. We knew the bottom line on who was a jerk and who had potential; we knew who was going to get Second …we knew!
“I’d been eyeballing Parnelli mainly because he was so entertaining. His car number was 66 but he was upside down so much it might as well have been 99. But I saw the raw talent in the guy. When I was watching a race I’d put myself mentally in a given driver’s car. I identified with Parnelli because I had my share of driving pieces of crap. I had to over drive them because of bad brakes or abominable steering. I had to overcompensate and Parnelli was doing a lot of that as well.