Hila Sweet: “We saw this black car running out there in practice going like hell, then he’
“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 says, “we had 200 cars show up; they only took 16 for the ma
“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 to the Danica Patrick of her day. Sweet was a looker so she do
“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.