Hila Sweet: “We saw this black...
Hila Sweet: “We saw this black car running out there in practice going like hell, then he’d either spin out or get upside down … it was Parnelli. Here comes 66 again, we’d say, but he might as well have been 99 he was upside down so much! Then when Parnelli would get back on his wheels he’d go real slow. We thought he had something wrong with the car but he was waiting for someone on the track. Next thing, a car would pass him and he’d get right behind him and spin him out. That’s when I started noticing Parnelli. He was a sore loser. Or if you spun him out, he was out of the car and your ass was grass. Parnelli didn’t have any front teeth when I met him either!” He just drove so hard for the piece of crap car he was driving, but I noticed something. I identified with him.”
“When I was 16 I would climb over the fence by the outhouse at Carrell Speedway to watch Tory Ruttman race there in his track roadster, much like my T-bucket. I watched him charging from the back and win races there. At that point he became my hero … I wanted to be just like him.”
Billy Calder of Cypress, California, was Parnelli’s high school chum and friend to this day. Calder is the culprit who gave Parnelli his now very famous name: “There was a little freckle-faced redhead girl with pigtales named Nellie who was always bothering Sidney Hatton, Parnelli, and me in school,” Calder begins. “Nellie did everything possible to irritate us, especially Parnelli … she had a thing for him and would follow him all around school. I put the names Nellie and Parnell together and would kid him in school singing Nellie loves Parnellie.
“In my jalopy days,” Parnelli...
“In my jalopy days,” Parnelli says, “we had 200 cars show up; they only took 16 for the main event, 16 for the semi, then the rest for the Hooligan race (Hooligan was for new and non-qualified drivers). You learned to hustle and kick every aspect, every possible opportunity you could possibly take. When I went into other kinds of racing I didn’t have that kind of competition. I knew how to maximize everything out of the car but it wasn’t always in the best interest of me finishing a race.” Parnelli knew in the open-wheel, open-cockpit race car days, which took so many promising race drivers lives back then, that it was just a matter of time before his number came up. His brother Paul was involved in two significant crashes in Sprint Cars so when Parnelli met his future wife, Judy, he declined to drive those types of cars because he wanted to raise a family. That didn’t stop him from extending his kick-butt style of driving when he got into caged cars however.
“Sidney [Hatton] was the guy who got us racing. He started racing a ’35 Ford sedan and we’d go to the track and work on his car. Parnelli got the idea of racing with us, but he was only 17, underage to drive at the track. He couldn’t use his real name because he didn’t want his folks to find out he was racing. His mom would have killed him if she found out. I did all the artwork on the car is: the name, number, and all. So I painted ‘Parnellie’ on the car,” Calder, who still gets a hoot out of the whole episode today, laughs. “He hated the name Rufus (which Calder still calls him by today) and would fight at the drop of a hat if anyone kidded him about it.
“I had a Harley when I shipped over to Korea during the war. I was in the infantry. When I got there I saw how rough it was. I wrote my mother to let Parnelli borrow my Harley because I wasn’t sure I would make it back home. Sidney and I were both in the infantry, but he was in a different company. When I went to see him, I learned he was killed the day before.
Hila Sweet has been likened...
Hila Sweet has been likened to the Danica Patrick of her day. Sweet was a looker so she doubled as a trophy girl but her talent as a race car driver was such; she had 58 successive checkered flags waved at her. Like Parnelli, Sweet gave no quarter to the guys she competed against.
“Parnelli took the bike hill climbing in Palos Verdes and it caught on fire. It melted to the ground. When I came home I didn’t have a car or a motorcycle. I had a ’39 Ford coupe before I went into the Army but I rolled and totaled it. Parnelli had gotten a ’39 Ford, built it piece by piece completely from the ground up, and gave it to me. He was a damn good mechanic … he didn’t just go out and buy one.”
“Jalopy” was a term used for dilapidated old cars—but the hot rods that ran were far from it; most of the jalopies that raced were well put together. Ummie Paulson (who you’ll read about shortly) replaced all of the wood in his ’32 Ford sedan with steel just like rodders do today. There was as much mechanical sophistication in the jalopies as in the track roadsters that ran before Parnelli’s time. Yes, many of the track roadster drivers went on to win Indy, however, by the time Parnelli entered the scene the roadsters had crashed themselves out of existence, then the Sprint Cars took over.
“I worked at a garage after school for a Japanese mechanic washing parts for him just to keep the T running. But that’s when I got involved in the Jalopy Races … we wiped out a lot of them things,” Parnelli laughs.