At a young age Parnelli Jones would jump the fence by the outhouse at Carrell Speedway to watch his idol Troy Ruttman run from the back of the pack and win races in his track roadster. Ruttman would go on to win the ultimate prize, the Indy 500, in 1952, driving for J.C. Agajanian in the No. 98 car. Parnelli would realize his dream by winning the Indy 500 in a car that carried the No. 98 for Mr. Agajanian in 1963.
How good was he? Two-time Indy 500 winner, the late Rodger Ward told writer/editor Richard Parks, who spent considerable time with Ward in his later years, “Parnelli Jones was the most talented race car driver I have ever raced against.”
Remember “Whoa Nellie” Dick Lane of KTLA Los Angeles who announced the Jalopy Races on TV
It would be impossible to cover Parnelli’s extensive racing history and his business interests (he owned seven Firestone tire stores in the L.A. area, plus he was the distributor for Firestone racing tires in 11 Western states) in the pages allotted here.
It was his early days as a hot rodder that laid the foundation to his success and certainly the people who saw his fiery desire to win in racing, and in life, that his story is about.
Being smack dab in the middle of hot rod country, as a young lad, where racetracks of every configuration were on top of one another, Parnelli took the reins early on and went racing, horse racing that is. Read on.
The photo of Parnelli sliding on the outside in his ’34 Ford five-window almost looks chor
Rufus Parnell “Parnelli” Jones, of Palos Verdes, California, was born in Texarkana, Arkansas, in 1933 but moved to Fallbrook, California (near San Diego, known as the Avocado Capital of the United States), when he was 2 years old. His dad took a job working in the area’s avocado groves, but later moved the family to Torrance when Parnelli was 7, where his dad worked as a crane operator and his mom as a nurse.
“I can remember when I was 7 we used to go to church in Oceanside about 20 miles away from Fallbrook on Sunday and my mom (Dovie) would put me on her lap and let me steer her car,” Parnelli begins. “My dad (Commodore) would sit on the righthand side; my mom did most of the driving.”
“After Billy Calder spent two years in Korea, we started going to the races again. Billy a
Parnelli went to Narbonne High School in Harbor City (near Torrance). However, while in school, and before he got involved in controlling hundreds of horses, he gained a love for one burro: “I hung around a horse stable, I loved horses,” Parnelli says, “and I had a burro. There was a guy at the stable who trained stallions to do tricks and I was able to see what he did and I trained my burro to do tricks when I was around 12.
“I used to ride quarter horses in amateur-type races. I was small and a good rider and the owners liked me to ride their horses. But I grew and suddenly I was too big to ride their horses anymore. I learned to break horses to ride and got my own horse to ride. I sold my horse for $200. I took that money to buy my first hot rod, a ’23 T-bucket with a Model A engine with two carburetors on it with a little box on the back.
“My next car was a gray primered ’32 three-window coupe with no fenders on it. There was a dirt field that had a quarter-mile dirt circle track that was used for horses, and I had fun hot lapping my ’32 around the track. I didn’t know I was going to be a race driver then. I upgraded to a ’40 Ford coupe. I knocked the transmission out of it all the time. I also had a ’40 sedan.
“I didn’t graduate from high school. I didn’t like Narbonne and went to Torrance High. I didn’t like that either. At that point I was involved in cars and just quit school.
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.
“That’s the Midget that Vel Miletich and I owned together,” Parnelli says. That famous par
“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 Midget on the outside of No. 11: “That was at Ascot. I ran As
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 five-window of yours was kinda waded up when you got it and nev
“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.
J.C. Agajanian was the man who gave Parnelli his big break when he got him to quit Sprint
“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 at 139th Street and Western Avenue in Gardena and not only hos
“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 who won the 1967 Indianapolis 500 (A.J. Foyt), but there’s a g
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.
“That’s my late brother Paul,” Parnelli states, “who was a Sprint Car and Midget driver.”
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.
Really Fast Dirt Roads
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.
Formula to Success
“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.