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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.