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Special feature
IndyCar Indy 500

Indy 500 retrospective: When Jones beat Clark and paused a revolution

Sixty years ago, Parnelli Jones and his Watson-Offy roadster taught Lotus and Jimmy Clark a lesson or two at the Indianapolis 500. We recount the tale of a controversial month at the Brickyard.

Parnelli Jones

Jim Hurtubise was the man who warned them all. He set a four-lap qualifying average of 149.056mph on the fourth day of time trials for the 1960 Indianapolis 500 – a new record and about 2.5mph faster than Eddie Sachs’s polewinning average from a week earlier. Then he informed anyone who’d listen that there was someone even better coming soon…

That man was Rufus Parnell Jones. And if the fans weren’t so familiar with his name – switched long ago to ‘Parnelli Jones’ – the Indy drivers who also raced in sprint cars knew him, because he was already one of the toughest nuts to crack. And he was backed by the first believer who could make a real difference in his career, and who was as ambitious as Jones himself: Los Angeles businessman Vel Miletich.

On the IMCA [International Motor Contest Association] sprint car circuit in 1959, Jones had finished fifth in the championship, despite only joining mid-season. But at 26-years-old he was smart enough not to go hunting for Indy 500 rides in two-bit junkers. Better, he thought, to get a near-season of USAC Champ Cars under his wheels post-Indy, gain experience and prove himself to the establishment through the summer, finish what he’d started in USAC sprint cars, and then go for his Indy rookie stripes in 1961.

His plan worked out tidily: Jones captured the 1960 USAC Midwest Sprint Car Series title and embarked on his Champ Car [what we now refer to as Indy car] career from the Milwaukee round, held the week after the 500. The Champ Car scene was as tough as it gets and he even had two DNQs. But a couple of sixth places and a runner-up finish at Sacramento toward year’s end proved to him that the step up from sprint cars was nothing he couldn’t deal with.

Come 1961, now with the backing of hog-farming and waste-disposal entrepreneur J.C. Agajanian (who had played sugar daddy to 1952 Indy winner Troy Ruttman), Jones had a Watson roadster at his disposal and he wasn’t about to waste it.

His rookie test at Indy was not a cinch. Initially, Jones was overcharging the corner and then braking; the best of the veterans urged him to back off earlier, brake more gently, then get back to the throttle earlier. He listened, learned and applied not only that lesson but also one he had observed while spectating the previous year. Hurtubise put in more steering angle, cornering so hard that the lateral load would bend the tall sidewalls of his rear tyres before they pinged back into shape on exiting the turn.

Once Jones had become more expert at how long to hold the slides, he started to emulate his friend’s technique, and the gains in speed came quickly. So long as he wound off the opposite lock fast enough to have the front wheels pointing straight as he went back to full throttle, the rear tyre ‘pop’ as it untucked itself and regained grip seemed to add an extra little boost of speed onto the next straight.

Jones took his second straight Indy 500 pole in 1963, where he was joined on the front row by Hurtubise and Don Branson

Jones took his second straight Indy 500 pole in 1963, where he was joined on the front row by Hurtubise and Don Branson

Photo by: IMS Photos

It was by no means a long-term technique for use in the race – it rapidly burned off the shoulders of the rear tyres – but for a four-lap qualifying effort it seemed to work. Belying his rookie status, Jones claimed fifth on the grid. And come race day, he even led 27 laps before his engine fell out of tune, and some debris was thrown in his face, causing injury. He came home 12th, bloodied but unbowed: he could do this.

And through 1961 he proved it. In Champ Car, he took second place at fearsome Langhorne, pole at Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield, second in Sacramento and finally scored a breakthrough win in the season finale at Phoenix. In between, he claimed the USAC National Sprint Car Series title too.

Jones was now most definitely one to watch, and in 1962 he started to move the game on. After a second place at Trenton, he arrived at the Speedway as one of the favourites, and he did not disappoint. Four laps above the magic 150mph barrier sealed pole, and in the race he led 120 laps, even lapping eventual winner Rodger Ward. But a brake line failed, making pitstops a nightmare, and he came home seventh.

Clark possessed that same level of talent and adaptability; matching Moss’s level of confidence and indomitability was just a step or two away. After all, Clark had just come off his breakthrough F1 season

That year, he was a contender for the USAC Champ Car title – eventually he’d claim third behind Ward and AJ Foyt – adding a win at Indiana State Fairgrounds to five other top-three finishes. And that National Sprint Car title remained his, too.

When he returned to Indy for 1963, Parnelli wasn’t just one to watch: he was The One. His opposition? Well, the likely candidates would be 1959 and 1962 winner Ward, 1961 winner Foyt, Hurtubise, Don Branson… And maybe some of those funny foreign cars with their engines at the wrong end.

Two years earlier, Jack Brabham had put on a decent display in the rear-engined Kimberly Cooper Climax, qualifying 17th out of 33 and finishing ninth. Its 2.7-litre engine was some 170bhp down on the 4.2-litre Offenhausers of the front-engined roadsters – 270bhp vs. 440bhp – but he was making up a hell of a lot of time in the turns. Just think, if you could marry roadster horsepower to the rear-engined car’s centre of gravity...

And that’s effectively what Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus, endeavoured to do. At Dan Gurney’s urging, Chapman attended the 1962 race and learned (some) of what it was all about. He saw Gurney racing the only rear-engined car in that year’s race – Mickey Thompson’s ungainly-looking but impressively rapid Buick-engined device – and headed back to the UK for he and Len Terry to draw up a Lotus equivalent.

When he returned, it would be with Lotus 29s, powered by Ford 4.2-litre V8s pushing out 380bhp. That was still 50-60bhp off the best Offys, but Chapman’s Lotus 24s and 25s on the Formula 1 Grand Prix circuit had already proven that he and Terry had a handle on handling.

Jim Clark's Lotus 29-Ford was Jones's main opposition on race day in 1963

Jim Clark's Lotus 29-Ford was Jones's main opposition on race day in 1963

Photo by: David Phipps

And Lotus had a couple of drivers who stood up to comparison with anyone. By this point, Gurney had finished fourth and fifth in the 1961 and 1962 F1 world championship standings driving for Porsche, had won at scary Rouen, had taken pole at the intimidating Nurburgring and racked up a handful of podium finishes despite the pretty little Porsches being no regular match for the svelte cars from Lotus, BRM and Ferrari.

In the other Lotus was Jimmy Clark, a man who many already viewed as the natural successor to the unofficial title of F1 king now that a fearsome crash had persuaded Stirling Moss to retire. The quiet Scot possessed that same level of talent and adaptability; matching Moss’s level of confidence and indomitability was just a step or two away. After all, Clark had just come off his breakthrough F1 season, scoring three wins and six pole positions, and finishing runner-up in the points race. Only Lotus fragility had lost him the title to the sturdier if less groundbreaking BRM of Graham Hill.

Four rear-engined cars started the 1963 Indy 500. The Lotus pair qualified in fifth (Clark) and 12th (Gurney had a shunt that required him to switch to the spare car). Thompson’s cars, penned by John Crosthwaite, were extremely low-profile machines on extremely low-profile tyres with stock Chevrolets in the back, and were dubbed ‘rollerskates’ at the time, but actually looked like turbots with wheels. Yet two of them made it through to the race in the hands of brave but smart veteran, 50-year-old Duane Carter (15th), and rookie Al Miller (in 31st).

Up front, on pole for the second straight year, was Jones in the #98 “Ol’ Calhoun” Watson-Offy, alongside Hurtubise in the Kurtis powered by the cataclysmically loud Novi, and Branson in the Leader Card Watson-Offy. Two more examples of this go-to chassis-engine combo sat on row two, flanking Clark’s Lotus, with Ward on the inside and Jim McElreath on the outside.

“I always thought I was going to win,” Jones told Steve Shunck ahead of Indy’s Centennial celebrations in 2008. “I’m not the smartest race driver by any means and I didn’t know how to get to the end. I knew how to go fast but I didn’t always know how to be smart. But I felt that there’s nobody that can beat me. I had that kind of attitude.”

When traditional starter Pat Vidan waved the green flag, Jones initially took the lead while the supercharged Novi of Hurtubise dropped briefly to seventh but, accelerating like a grand piano falling from a 12-story building, Hurtubise had his howling handful into the lead by the end of the first lap. However, once the Novi had reached terminal speed, Jones was able to get back in front for lap two and remained there for the next 63 laps. When he pitted for the first of three stops, Roger McCluskey briefly took over the lead, and once he too ducked in for servicing, Clark and Gurney were left running 1-2.

Since their Ford V8s ran regular fuel and sipped it more parsimoniously than the roadsters swigged methanol, and because the Lotus 29s were far kinder to their tyres than the roadsters, the team aimed to get through on just a single pitstop. Just as well, really. Experienced Indy pitcrews could change tyres and fill their cars with fuel in less than 20 seconds, whereas the Lotus lads took around twice that amount of time.

Hurtubise's Kurtis-Novi would lead the first lap and no more, as Jones set the pace for 167 of the 200 laps

Hurtubise's Kurtis-Novi would lead the first lap and no more, as Jones set the pace for 167 of the 200 laps

Photo by: David Phipps

When Gurney and Clark finally stopped on laps 92 and 95 respectively, Jones re-took the lead, and the now fuel-heavy Lotus duo could do nothing about him. Nor could anyone else, in fact. Clark was able to retain second ahead of Hurtubise and Foyt, but when Jones made his second stop, he was far enough ahead of the little Lotus that he didn’t surrender P1. And by lap 150 – three-quarter distance – he was almost 50 seconds clear.

Yet he was trailing what looked like oil smoke, and when Sachs spun 10 laps later, causing a caution period, Jones made his third and final stop. It was obvious that Ol’ Calhoun’s rear flanks were now covered in oil streaks. Race steward Harlan Fengler had been adamant in the pre-race driver briefing that cars dropping oil on track would be black-flagged, and indeed, that’s what had brought an end to Hurtubise’s run in the Kurtis-Novi.

It must be said that this rule, however worthy, was applied on a somewhat ad hoc basis, relying on a man standing on a plinth and wielding a pair of binoculars to train his vision on the right car at the right time as it whipped past him at 150mph. And besides, all Offys tended to seep oil. As Jones remarked later, how much was too much?

Clark took the defeat with good grace, less annoyed about the slick track surface than by the murky, almost unenforceable rules of that era regarding caution periods and how hard you should or shouldn’t run them

Should Jones get dragged into the pits for makeshift repairs? Certainly Chapman thought so and approached Fengler… who then swiftly found Agajanian yelling the opposing view in his other ear. By the time Fengler had his binoculars on the offending #98 car, whatever surfeit of oil had once been there had clearly dropped below the crack in the tank.

“I had no problems until towards the end when obviously I cracked my oil tank,” said Jones, who at 89 is the oldest surviving Indy winner. “Actually, when it first happened, it just poured that oil out on my left rear tyre. I almost spun it. I could see a little puff of smoke there. So anyway, I took off and I started building my confidence up and it got better and better and better. Pretty soon I was fine.

“Of course, towards the end of the race I had obviously slowed way down during that time and that gave Jimmy Clark a chance to start closing up a little bit. But I was long gone and then I started picking up the pace again.”

Clark’s Lotus was skittering on the slick track and having drawn to within 10 seconds of the leader, he had no ammo left to throw at Jones who, as he noted, pulled away again. Under a final caution for third-placed McCluskey spinning on oil and hitting the wall, Jones and Clark finished some 30 seconds apart.

Clark took the defeat with good grace, less annoyed about the slick track surface than by the murky, almost unenforceable rules of that era regarding caution periods and how hard you should or shouldn’t run them. He had been irritated to lose out to Jones every time the yellows came out. But he and Chapman were mollified by the $56,000 they had earned as runners-up, and for Clark winning Rookie of the Year.

Parnelli Jones sups the milk as team owner JC Agajanian celebrates his first Indy 500 win for 11 years

Parnelli Jones sups the milk as team owner JC Agajanian celebrates his first Indy 500 win for 11 years

Photo by: Parnelli Jones Collection

McCluskey and Sachs were quite another matter. The former slammed the officials as being “a very inefficient bunch” for failing to black-flag Jones, while Sachs, the so-called ‘clown prince’, got a red nose the next day after remonstrating with Jones himself. When Sachs wouldn’t let the matter lie, he was silenced by Parnelli’s right fist.

“That close to the end of the race, I wouldn’t have come in anyway,” said Jones when discussing the black flag – or lack thereof. “They may have disqualified me or whatever but I was going to win the race one way or the other. 

“When I got the white flag, I slowed down, and when I slowed down, Roger McCluskey, who I had lapped, comes charging by me down the back straightaway into Turn 3. He’s driving into the corner so hard and he spins the car around. So he’s now upset.

“Of course, Eddie Sachs lost a wheel early in the race. They put it back on and he spun… so he’s upset after the race. They’re trying to blame me that they spun in my oil. But the track was oily all day long… [Hurtubise’s] car had run completely out of oil…

“But anyway, I had no idea they were even contemplating black-flagging me.”

The epilogue to the story is that while Clark and Lotus had been defeated by both Jones and their own inexperience when racing the USAC establishment, they had also nevertheless started tolling the bell for the handsome if relatively unwieldy roadsters. Come August, Team Lotus would venture to Milwaukee, where Clark and Gurney started 1-2 and finished 1-3. Thus Clark, while dominating the 1963 F1 season, also found time to score the first-ever Champ Car win in a rear-engined car. He and Gurney were also dominating the race at Trenton when their engines failed them.

For the 1964 Indy 500, Clark, Bobby Marshman and Gurney lined up their Lotuses in first, second and sixth, while in third – completing a rear-engined lockout of the front row – was Ward in Watson’s very worthy first attempt at building a chassis with the engine behind the driver. As things transpired, the Lotuses wilted and Ward was defeated by Foyt and by overly high fuel consumption, but it would be the final time a front-engined car won the race. Jones knew which way the wind was blowing and he won Milwaukee and Trenton in a Lotus-Ford.

To show there were no hard feelings, Clark congratulates Jones the morning after the 1963 race

To show there were no hard feelings, Clark congratulates Jones the morning after the 1963 race

Photo by: IMS Photos

So by the following year, almost everyone was in those funny rear-engined cars at Indy. Foyt’s Lotus took pole, Clark’s Lotus led 190 of the 200 laps and it seems appropriate that his most immediate challenger was Jones… in another Lotus.

Indycar racing’s rear-engined revolution was almost complete, and if its seeds were laid in 1961 and 1962, it truly bloomed in that famous and controversial race 60 years ago.

And as for Parnelli? He was so ridiculously good at the Brickyard – and hugely unlucky there on either side of his winning year – that for him not to have won would have induced outrage greater even than what we feel for Ted Horn, Lloyd Ruby and Michael Andretti.

The likeness of Parnelli Jones on the Borg-Warner Trophy

The likeness of Parnelli Jones on the Borg-Warner Trophy

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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