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Where Are They Now? Catching up with Parnelli Jones

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While he may be known more for his wins in the Indianapolis 500 and the Baja 1000, it was stock car racing that helped Parnelli Jones on the path to become the racing legend he is.

And even during his most successful years in open-wheel and off-road racing, the Torrence, California resident frequently went back to his stock car racing roots.

The first race Jones competed in was a “jalopy race” stock car event at Carrell Speedway in Gardena, California in 1950. He had to lie about his age because 17 was considered a “minor,” which if the truth had come out, would have kept him from racing.

While he struggled early on, Jones’ raw talent eventually turned to great success, earning 15 stock car wins across several West Coast-based series including late models and modifieds over the next few years.

Richard Petty and Parnelli Jones in 2003. (Photo: Jean-Paul Aussenard/WireImage via Getty Images.)

Then, one year after winning the Indianapolis 500, Jones captured the 1964 USAC stock car championship, earning eight wins that season.

Jones went on to make 34 NASCAR Grand National starts, earning four wins, six top-five and 11 top-10 finishes.

He also made an additional 30 starts in the California-based Winston West Series (which now is known as the ARCA Menards Series West), earning four wins, 15 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes. He was inducted into the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame in 2001.

“One thing about a stock car is its handling.” Jones told NBC Sports. “It’s a lot tougher to drive, but I adapted well to different kinds of racing. It seemed like once I got in the car, it wasn’t the race so much as it was the car itself. I enjoyed my short span in NASCAR.”

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Jones said the high point of his NASCAR career was his win in the 1967 Motor Trend 500 at Riverside International Raceway. But it was three years later at Riverside, in the final NASCAR race of his career — and while driving for Wood Brothers Racing — that gave Jones great personal satisfaction for a different kind of reason.

Parnelli Jones celebrates his victory in the 1967 Motor Trend 500 at Riverside International Raceway. (Photo by Bob D’Olivo/The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images/Getty Images)

“NASCAR took my tires away after qualifying at Riverside,” Jones said. “They told me I couldn’t run the Firestone tires, I had to run Goodyears.”

Then, Jones, no stranger to displaying feistiness in his career, added with a laugh:

“After I set my qualifying (sixth) time, they made me start dead last. I was able to come up through the field to the lead before I made my first pit stop. When I got to the pits, I rolled down the window net and I gave Bill France (Sr.) the ‘one lap sign’ (raised his middle finger).”

Not only did he go from last to first, he dominated the race, leading 88 laps, before the clutch on his Mercury broke with 25 laps to go. A.J. Foyt passed Jones for the lead and held on for the win. Still, Jones finished 11th in the race.

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Health issues in the last year have slowed down the 86-year-old Jones – he missed attending the Indianapolis 500 last year for the first time since 1958 – but he still has a need for speed. He is helping oversee the budding racing career of grandson Jagger Jones, as well as son PJ’s racing and off-road race vehicle manufacturing exploits.

Parnelli is particularly proud of 17-year-old Jagger. The third-generation racer finished second and was rookie of the year last season in the NASCAR ARCA Menards West Series.

“The first toy they get is a race car or something like that, and then they follow their parents. Jagger is no different,” Parnelli said of his grandson. “He’s certainly a very bright kid, very sharp, he adapts well and learns well.

“He’s a very smart kid, has great grades and is at the top all the time. I’m very proud of him. He’s certainly put a great mark on the Jones family.”

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While he spends most of his time in his Southern California home or office, Parnelli still keeps up with a number of racing friends, including legendary drag racer Don “Snake” Prudhomme and NASCAR/IndyCar/IMSA team owner Chip Ganassi.

Drag racing legend Don ‘Snake’ Prudhomme and Jagger Jones, Parnelli Jones’ grandson, raced together in last year’s NORRA Mexican 1000 in Baja, California. The duo plans to again compete together in the race in October. (Photo: Don Prudhomme).

“There was a cop once upon a time who pulled someone over for speeding and said, ‘Who the hell do you think you are, Parnelli Jones?’” Prudhomme said with a laugh. “I heard that saying even before I met Parnelli and once I did meet him, I understood why.

“We never raced against each other, which actually is kind of special because you get to know someone like that outside of racing; we just struck up a great friendship. And then I became real good friends with his son PJ, and I’ve raced in Baja with his grandson Jagger and we’re scheduled to do that again hopefully later this year.

“When I’m sitting next to Jagger in the race car and he has his helmet on, you’d think it’s Parnelli driving. It’s the same thing. He’s a 17-year-old kid and he’s impressed the heck out of me.

“Parnelli also really showed me there was more to living than just racing. He quit at a pretty young age and that always impressed me, like how can you do that? I didn’t think anybody could get out of a car (at that age), but he was going into business and became very successful, which also impressed me.

“He inspired me to try and make a success out of myself outside of just being at the race track. Parnelli is somebody I’ve always looked up to for that.”

Ganassi has been a diehard fan of Jones – and eventually became great friends with – for virtually his entire life. His admiration began when Ganassi was 5 years old and his father bought him an 8mm film of the 1963 Indianapolis 500 that was held just a few months earlier.

Team owner Chip Ganassi has been a lifelong fan and close friends with Parnelli Jones for nearly 40 years. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“I played that film on our wall and watched it a thousand times,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “Then, several years later, I finally make it to the Indy 500 as a driver (1981 at the age of 23) and I meet Parnelli. I told him the story about how my dad had bought that film for me and how I watched it.

“I’ve become real good friends with him. I remember five years ago, I even had Thanksgiving dinner with him, his wife, his son PJ and his wife and their sons.

“The thing about Parnelli is he’s still current. He may not be the physical specimen he once was, but his mind, he’s got a lot of race craft in him still. He knows what’s going on in racing.

“Not only was he my first-ever hero, he was also the first name I ever knew in racing. There’s no question how much he’s inspired me in my life.”

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Jones enjoyed success in virtually every form of motorsport he participated in, be it NASCAR, open-wheel, sprint cars, off-road and more. Someone even once said Jones would be competitive and win races even if he drove a forklift.

When asked what one word best described him and his desire to succeed in any form of racing he took part in, Jones chuckled with his response: “Impatience.”

LeeRoy Yarbrough (middle) and Parnelli Jones (right) talk before Jones’ final NASCAR  race in 1970 at Riverside. (Photo by The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images/Getty Images)

“That’s when you have racing in your blood and enjoyed driving all kinds of different cars as well,” Jones said. “Once I accomplished one series or something like that, I would want to see what’s out afield and I liked jumping around doing different types of racing.

“It was fun and I was having a great time doing that and I was fortunate enough not to get hurt.”

But the faster he went, the level of risk and danger increased, prompting Parnelli to scale back his time behind the wheel by his mid-30s.

His last Indianapolis 500 was in 1967 at the age of 33 (finished sixth), and his last NASCAR race was in 1970 at the age of 36 (11th at Riverside).

“I was fortunate enough not to be injured and then started backing down from my racing,” Jones said. “I’d been very lucky and fortunate in a time where I’d won sprint car championships and Indy and the cars back then were very, very dangerous. I didn’t want to push my luck, plus I wanted to start a family.”

Jones would go on to have a very successful business career, building a corporate empire that included nearly 50 retail tire stores in the West, a wholesale business that sold automotive parts and supplies to countless dealerships across the country, and designed and sold wheels for car owners who wanted to customize their rides.

He also became a successful race team owner, winning back-to-back Indy 500 titles in 1970 and 1971 and three straight USAC championships from 1970-1972.

But once a racer, always a racer: Jones unretired briefly in 1993 at the age of 60 to take part in Fast Masters, a made-for-TV event that featured 50 retired drivers from various forms of motorsports, including NASCAR luminaries Bobby and Donnie Allison, Buddy Baker, Harry Gant, Benny Parsons, David Pearson and Dick Trickle.

In the six Fast Masters races, Jones competed just three times but won once, finished runner-up a second time and his lowest finish was just sixth (in the championship finale). He also earned one pole and never qualified lower than third in the three events he entered.

Jones was ultra-competitive throughout his racing and business career, but for as good of a race car driver that he was, he’s an even better person overall according to those who know him well.

“We’re pals,” Prudhomme said. “And if you’re pals with Parnelli Jones, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

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Editor’s note: We will have another story on Jones’ success in other race series, particularly Indy car and off-road racing, on NBCSports.com’s MotorSportsTalk later this month. 

Ryan Newman to be sponsored by Progressive Insurance at Atlanta

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Ryan Newman and his No. 6 Ford will be sponsored by Progressive Insurance this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Fox), Roush Fenway Racing announced Wednesday.

“We’re excited to welcome Progressive Insurance to the team this weekend in Atlanta,” Newman said in a press release. “A major brand such as theirs fits well into the NASCAR space. Atlanta makes for a challenging and entertaining race with the differing options of the preferred line, so we’re looking forward to it with Progressive on board.”

This is the first time Progressive has been a primary sponsor on a car in a national NASCAR series.

“We’re inspired by the resolve of Ryan and thrilled to be working with him and the team at Roush Fenway Racing this weekend in Atlanta,” Jay VanAntwerp, Progressive’s Media Business Leader, said in the press release. “Racing fans, and sports fans in general, are craving live events, so everyone should be thrilled at the chance to see Ryan and his fellow drivers out on the track. Progressive’s competitive spirit is a great fit for the dynamic, fast-paced action of NASCAR, so we’re looking forward to being part of that excitement with the No. 6 car wrapped in blue and white and sporting the Progressive name. Hopefully we will see Ryan take the checkered flag on Sunday afternoon.”

Newman enters Sunday’s race coming off a 15th-place finish at Bristol. In the five races since NASCAR returned on May 17 at Darlington, Newman’s best finish is 14th in the second Darlington race.

Cup drivers preparing for hotter, slicker Atlanta race after March postponement

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It’s time for NASCAR to go racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway, finally.

Almost three months after it was scheduled, NASCAR will head back to Georgia for its annual race weekend at the 1.5-mile track Atlanta.

Cars were hours away from being on track on March 13 when NASCAR announced that weekend’s races were postponed due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.

All three national series will be in action, with the Cup Series highlighting the weekend with its race on Sunday (3 p.m. ET on Fox).

This is the first time the Cup Series has competed at Atlanta in June since 1965. The last five Atlanta weekends have been held in late February or early March after it was moved from Labor Day weekend in 2015.

With a forecasted temperature of 81 degrees at the start of the race, it will be the return of “Hotlanta.”

The series is preparing for the combination of warm weather and the track’s rough surface that hasn’t been repaved since 1997, thanks to petitioning by drivers.

“Atlanta is always a fun place to race because of the surface and how worn out it is,” Martin Truex Jr. said in a media release. “It has been a few years since we’ve raced there when it’s really hot to bring out just how slick the track can get, so that will be a bit of a challenge going in with no practice.”

Truex, who finished second in this race last year, is seeking his first victory of the year and his first win at Atlanta. Atlanta is one of two 1.5-mile tracks he hasn’t won at, joining Texas Motor Speedway.

Truex has failed to finish in the top 10 once in his last eight starts at Atlanta. He heads into Atlanta coming off a 20th-place finish at Bristol. Before that he had four consecutive top 10s.

“I feel pretty good about how we have ran on the bigger tracks where handling comes into play,” Truex said. “We need a little bit of speed overall, but we’ve been able to run pretty well at tracks where the surface is slicker, so I feel confident about the car we’ll unload and how we’ll run on Sunday.”

With the track’s rough surface, restarts will be vital according to Kyle Busch, a two-time winner at Atlanta.

“I don’t know if it has to do with the asphalt mix or whatever when they paved that place that now you can definitely tell the difference between the inside lane and that outside lane,” Busch said in a media release. “Also, the inside guy has a straighter launch than the guy on the outside – he’s always kind of turning so that’s something to be said for it. Overall, it’s just some places are that way. Atlanta is the worst for the launch. The application of throttle to not spin the rear tires is so crucial there and it’s so easy to do when you’re in that outside lane.”

Busch was the winner of the 2013 Atlanta race, which was held Labor Day weekend. That was also Toyota’s last Cup win there.

“Atlanta is one of those places where anything can happen and we’ll definitely have to be on our toes there this weekend,” Busch said. “You have to have good grip there, you have to have good (tire) fall-off – you have to be fast to start a run, yet you don’t want to fall off more than anybody else. So you have to take care of your stuff and bide your time a little bit. That lends itself to options by the driver to either push hard early (in the run) or save a little and be there late. We went there several months ago and didn’t get to race there, so expecting the weekend to be much different this time around than when we traveled there in March.”

Like Truex, Busch is looking for his first win of the year. Should they or any other Toyota or Chevrolet driver win, they would end a three-year reign by Ford on the 1.5-mile track.

Brad Keselowski won two of those races and Kevin Harvick claimed the other.

Bubba Wallace joins Mike Tirico on Lunch Talk Live on NBCSN

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Bubba Wallace will be on today’s “Lunch Talk Live” with host Mike Tirico. The show airs at Noon ET on NBCSN.

“Lunch Talk Live” focuses on the current state of the sports world, providing guests with a platform to discuss the state of sports, voice their personal stories and detail how they are adapting their daily lives during this challenging time.

You can also watch the show online here.

Wallace is also a guest on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download, which airs at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Today’s scheduled guests are:

  • 12:00 p.m. – Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills head coach
  • 12:15 p.m. – Bubba Wallace
  • 12:30 p.m. – James Hinchcliffe, IndyCar driver
  • 12:40 p.m. –  Ken Niumatalolo, Navy football head coach
  • 12:50 p.m. – Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets captain

 

Bubba Wallace encourages drivers to speak on social issues

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Bubba Wallace, at times emotional in discussing the recent killings of unarmed black men, said on the Dale Jr. Download that he needs to be more vocal on such matters and encouraged fellow NASCAR drivers to do the same.

“Through all the chaos that has gone on in the world, all of the African Americans, all of the unarmed black men and women being killed, I’ve been silent,” Wallace said on the Dale Jr. Download. “I’ve read all of them and I’ve been silent. I just felt that wasn’t my place. That was a huge mistake.”

Wallace, the only black driver competing in the Cup Series, said he’s reached out to fellow competitors and NASCAR officials and encouraged them to speak out in the days after George Floyd was killed while in custody of Minneapolis police on May 25. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Wednesday, the murder charged was changed to second-degree murder. Also, three other former Minneapolis police officers were charged with aiding and abetting murder on Wednesday.

“We have got to do better, we’ve got to step up,” Wallace said on the show about a message he sent to fellow Cup drivers. “I encourage everybody to say what they feel. … This is way more important than any race win, any championship that you’ve ever accomplished. This is something that can change on a global impact.”

Wallace also discussed a conversation he had with Chase Elliott.

“I texted him (Monday) night,” Wallace said. “I said, hey man, you’re the biggest name in our sport right now bud, like it or not. You’re the biggest name and your voice carries over much more than mine in our sport. I said don’t be silent on this please, don’t let it go under wraps.

“He was like, I know it’s tough to comment on and I’ve been trying to come up with something. What’s really going to change? I said Chase I don’t know but think about this. Imagine a follower, two followers that you have in how many you got. One is a person that is going to go hate somebody, go kill somebody today and the other one is somebody that is getting discriminated against.

“Imagine you saying something and both of those people look at that and they’re like, ‘Wow, that changed who I am today. I’m not going to hate on anybody anymore. I’m not going to be discriminated against. I’m going to stand up for what’s right.’

“Imagine your words changing somebody else’s life. Being silent on that they could have just (said) ‘I was waiting for somebody to tell me something.’ We have that platform and that voice to tell people we have got to stop and change our ways. That’s how to think about it.

“Could my words have helped people? Pissed off people for sure. It could have helped that one person that needed it and didn’t know it. Wow Bubba Wallace just said that, he’s my favorite driver. You know what, I’m going to change my life today because of that. That makes me feel good.”

Wallace became emotional on the Dale Jr. Download as he described seeing the video of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man, gunned down in February in Georgia after a white father and son followed him. They and a third man have been charged with murder in connection with Arbery’s death.

“My heart was broken and my stomach was ripped out of my body when I saw that video and even thinking about it I’m getting emotional about it now, thinking about that video and seeing how an unarmed black man … to be jogging down the street and being hunted by two armed civilians and shot and killed in broad daylight with the other guy videoing and it sounded like he was loading his gun and ready to do the same thing.

“So that’s my take on that, and I’m just like what kind of world do we live I where we hunt people and take their life away because we assume something? We assume that this is a black guy that is terrorizing our neighborhood so we’re going to go kill him? What in the hell, man? I don’t see how people can wake up and think like that.”

Wallace later said: “I’m taking an effort to understand where all the hate, where all the anger, the pain, the suffering is coming from. I’m doing my research, I’m learning about things. I feel better about speaking out about it.”

Wallace also told the story of a cousin who was killed in a police shooting in 2003 in Tennessee.

“We were at my sister’s basketball tournament, I can’t remember where,” he said. “I was running around the gym with all the brothers and sisters there and all of a sudden I hear a scream like the worst scream that you want to hear, not like somebody scared you straight, like something bad had just happened. I look over and I see my mom running out the door and we had just found out that my cousin was shot and killed by a police officer.”

A judge later cleared the officer in the shooting. The family filed a civil suit and lost in court on appeal.

Wallace will appear on Lunch Talk Live with host Mike Tirico on Wednesday on NBCSN. The show airs at noon ET.

The Dale Jr. Download with Wallace airs at 6 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBCSN.