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Obituary

1963 Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones dies, aged 90

Parnelli Jones, widely regarded as one of the icons in the history of American motorsports, has passed away. He was 90 years old.

Parnelli Jones

According to a representative with Borg-Warner who was close to the situation, Jones passed away peacefully of natural causes in the presence of family members at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrence, California.

He was the oldest living winner of the Indianapolis 500, having achieved the ultimate success in the 1963 edition of the famed race.

Jones was born on 12 August 1933, in Texarkana, Arkansas, with his mother naming him after a local judge – Rufus Parnell – whom she had greatly respected.

At the age of 17, he was racing jalopies in Gardena, California, the town next to Torrence that Jones moved to 10 years prior, and needed an alias to prevent race officials from learning he was not 18, which was the legal age to compete. While he was able to lie about his age, it was his friend Billy Calder who provided the nickname “Parnellie” and painted on the door of his old car.

There were several different racing classes Jones competed in to hone his skillset during the 1950s, including NASCAR’s late model series on the West Coast that resulted in 15 wins.

Parnelli Jones

Parnelli Jones

Photo by: Parnelli Jones

In 1960, he was able to capture a Sprint Car title in the Midwest region, which stood as his first major championship. And that happened to catch the eye of J.C. Agajanian.

Everything led to a trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1961, where Jones became the 1961 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, an honour shared with Bobby Marshman. He led 27 laps and finished 12th after qualifying fifth.

Jones returned the following year and won the Indy 500 pole with a speed of 150.370mph, becoming the first driver to qualify over the 150mph mark. Despite leading 120 laps, a brake issue derailed hopes of victory and relegated him to seventh.

The breakthrough in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” finally happened for Jones in 1963, where he once again put it on pole and delivered another stout performance, leaving no doubt of his domination by leading 167 laps en route to victory. Later that same year, he also won the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb driving a Mercury Marauder built by legendary fabricator Bill Stroppe, breaking the speed record by a stock car in the process.

In remarkable fashion, Jones qualified in the top two rows in each of the next four Indy 500s. His closest effort to win the famed event came in his final Indy 500 start in 1967 while driving the famed STP-Paxton Turbo for Andy Granatelli. He ended up leading 171 laps but was left to drop out of the race just three laps from the end after a bearing in the transmission broke, leaving him with a sixth-place finish.

Parnelli Jones in Watson Offy

Parnelli Jones in Watson Offy

Photo by: IMS Photos

Jones also began competing in off-road racing in 1967 and went on to claim back-to-back wins in the Baha 1000 in 1971 and 1972. His career also featured 34 starts in the NASCAR Cup Series, capturing four wins, the last of which came at Riverside in 1967.

In 1969, he teamed with Velko “Vel” Miletich to form Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing.

The team went on to win the Indy 500 in 1970 Indy 500, with driver Al Unser Sr. leading 190 of 200 laps. Unser also claimed the USAC title that year with a staggering 10 wins. The 1971 Indy 500 saw Unser and VPJ repeat success in the Indy 500. Joe Leonard, who also drove for the team, won consecutive USAC titles in 1971 and 1972.

A major accident in the 1974 Baha 1000 led to Jones stepping away from full-time racing. However, he was still very much thriving as a team owner and secured the services of Mario Andretti and tested the waters of Formula 1 at the end of the year.

In 1975, the team ran 12 of 16 races as Andretti drove to a best finish of fourth in the Swedish Grand Prix. The team only ran two races the following year, with Andretti joining Lotus for the remainder of the campaign.

Jones was also a team owner in off-road racing, with driver Walker Evans winning the 1976 championship.

A plethora of success has been acknowledged throughout motorsports, with Jones inducted into numerous Halls of Fame, including the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (1990), National Sprint Car Hall of Fame (1991) and Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame (1985), among others.

Jones is survived by his wife Judy, sons PJ and Page, and grandchildren Jagger, Jace, Jimmy, Joie, Jet and Moxie.

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