“That’s my late brother Paul,”...
“That’s my late brother Paul,” Parnelli states, “who was a Sprint Car and Midget driver.” Paul (1938-2002) won 20 main events in the California Racing Association (CRA) races, plus he finished in the Top 10 point standings for 10 uninterrupted seasons. Paul, like Parnelli, also had a love for quarter horses, which he raced after he retired from driving.
I asked Granatelli, a pragmatist as well as a visionary, what if things had gone differently that day? His reply had nothing to do with the race but turbine-powered vehicles in general: “The manufacturers wouldn’t allow turbine cars on the road today no matter what the public interest,” Granatelli says. “You’d have no water in the radiator, no antifreeze, no fan belts, no exhaust system needed, no transmission needed to go forward. The engine weighed 240 pounds and the vehicle would be a thousand pounds lighter. You’d never have to open the hood or change the oil … you could drive 200,000 miles without ever opening the hood. It would put engine manufacturers out of business to have such a maintenance-free vehicle.”
It’s one thing to show up at a racetrack with your helmet, goggles, and fire suit ready to drive for someone’s race car, but to sign the checks as a team owner is a vastly different scenario.
Vel Miletich, a Torrance Ford dealer, and Parnelli formed Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing in 1967. The massive team (over 60 skilled employees plus 30 support vehicles) won more Champ Car races with the Ford 183-inch DOHC V-8 from 1968-72 than any other competitor. Their driver, Al Unser Sr., won the 500 driving the Johnny Lightning Special in 1970-71.
In 1975 the team reconfigured a Formula 1 chassis and a turbocharged British Cosworth V-8 to run at Indianapolis. They took an 183ci V-8 engine that was normally aspirated to run on gasoline and converted down to 161 ci to run on methanol. In all, the team amassed 53 First Place finishes.
Parnelli walked away from open-wheel open-cockpit race cars but as a driver he drove everything with a roof over his head. Most telling was his dominance in off-road racing once he was convinced to try it by his friend Bill Stroppe. It’s a good bet that most of the off-road racers hadn’t a clue about Parnelli’s jalopy racing past, but they found out pronto his driving style hadn’t changed any!
In the 1970 Mexican 1000 competitors learned the hard way that if they saw a Ford Bronco in their mirrors (built like a tank by Bill Stroppe, who also built a Mercury Marauder for Parnelli that they won the United States Auto Championship in 1964), they got out of the way because it was Parnelli and he was coming through. He led the race from start to finish just one minute shy of 15 hours for First Place. In all, he won the 1000 three times and the Baja 500 five times.
To be inducted into a hall of fame, in any field, by one’s contemporaries is an honor that few will ever experience. Parnelli was inducted into six: The Off Road Motorsports Hall of Fame, the Motorsports Hall of Fame, the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame, the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, and the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame. And any committee will tell you the selection process isn’t just about winning.
The birth of great racing mechanics and innovators was Muroc Dry Lake, but the great drivers came from the dirt tracks. Parnelli’s entry-level race cars were dime-a-dozen junkyard refugees that he drove on tracks around Southern California whose names have long faded from memory, like Ascot Park, Carrell Speedway, Culver City Speedway, and Gardena Speedway.
Recently, Orange Show Speedway, which opened in 1947 in San Bernardino, closed, maybe for good. Parnelli cut his teeth on that historical track, plus lost a few in the process, training to someday take on the massive 2 1/2-mile Brickyard in Indianapolis where he would claim the most coveted of victories in 1963.
“I was a tough kid who was trying to better himself. I had a lot of will and determination to do something with my life. I always felt that I was special. I came from a poor family but I didn’t wear dirty clothes. I was supporting my racing as a laborer at first by doing cement work.”
Hard work, resolve, and two father figures brought Parnelli his success both on and off the track. Parnelli came from a working-class family who taught him values. He made something out of himself because he wasn’t too proud to carry hod or clean greasy car parts to get there. Come to think of it, that formula to success hasn’t changed.