Parnelli Jones: The F1 team owner and US racing icon who made huge impact

Elizabeth Blackstock
Driver Parnelli Jones, driving the revolutionary turbine car, takes practice spin with rear flap up as a help in braking, races around on May 19, 1967 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Indianapolis, Indiana

Parnelli Jones driving the revolutionary turbine car at practice in the 1967 Indianapolis 500

Parnelli Jones, one of America’s most complete and diversified racing drivers, has died at the age of 90. In his wake, he leaves a legacy that brought him success in multiple countries and disciplines — including in the realm of Formula 1.

Parnelli Jones’ name may not be as well-known outside of America as it is within the States, but the racer’s impact here has been profound. When tasked to carve out his “Mount Rushmore” of U.S. racing drivers, Robin Miller, one of the most legendary racing reporters of all time, included Parnelli Jones alongside icons like Dan Gurney, Mario Andretti, and Bobby Unser.

Parnelli Jones: From Texarkana to Formula 1

Rufus Parnell Jones, born in Texarkana, Arkansas in 1933 before moving to Torrance, California, was the kind of driver that could really only exist in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. He hid behind his “Parnelli” nickname when he started racing in the 1950s — in part to keep his racing a secret from his parents, and in part because, at 17, he wasn’t legally old enough to race.

In 1960, Jones secured his first big title in Midwest Sprint car racing, which instantly grabbed the attention of promoter J. C. Agajanian. The following year, Jones — only 28 years old — shared Rookie of the Year honors at the 1961 Indianapolis 500 with Bobby Marshman.

The following year, in 1962, Parnelli Jones was the first driver in the history of Indianapolis to qualify with a four-lap average speed cresting 150 miles per hour. In 1963, he joined the Lotus-Ford team of Colin Chapman, just narrowly beating out rookie Jim Clark for victory.

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For many drivers, one discipline is enough — but Parnelli Jones was hungry. He raced open-wheel cars (including the iconic and controversial STP-Paxton Turbocar, a machine that dominated the 1967 Indy 500 until a minor transmission bearing broke). He raced sprint cars. He raced stock cars in the NASCAR Cup Series and took on the Trans Am world.

Then, at a Christmas party, someone suggested he try off-road racing. He said no… and then entered the Baja 1000 for the first time just months later.

International racing fans who follow Formula 1, though, likely know Parnelli’s name through his team ownership exploits, not his driving.

The Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing team was first formed in 1969 by Jones and his business partner Velko “Vel” Miletich. What started as a prosperous U.S.-based USAC operation quickly grew international aspirations after Al Unser won back-to-back Indy 500s with the team. 

VPJ instantly attracted top-notch talent in the form of former Team Lotus designer Maurice Philippe, and it had ample financial backing from tire manufacturer Firestone. Why not, Jones reasoned, attempt to enter some Formula 1 races? 

Mario Andretti brought the Parnelli-Ford home in seventh position at its debut in the 1974 Canadian Grand Prix, only to be disqualified at the season-ending US Grand Prix after Andretti’s crew push-started his stalled car. He had been sitting in third place at the time.

Hungry for more, the VPJ team committed to a nearly full season of F1 racing in 1975.

There was just one problem: Firestone had pulled out of racing at the end of the 1974 season. The VPJ outfit was confident it could find a replacement title sponsor, but nothing ever materialized. As a result, the team folded after the 1976 Long Beach Grand Prix — leaving driver Mario Andretti shocked at his sudden loss of a Formula 1 drive.

Reflecting on that folding in an episode of the “Deadly Passions, Terrible Joys” podcast, Andretti admitted that he discovered the team would be folding as he sat on the grid at the start of the race. The sudden demise of the team left Andretti without a ride; thankfully, he ran into Colin Chapman at breakfast and was able to broker a deal with Team Lotus. Over the course of its 16 races, Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing scored six points.

Jones’ forays into car ownership in the off-road USAC Dirt Car and racing worlds were far more successful. His vehicles took class wins at both the Baja 500 and the Baja 1000, and he secured two USAC Dirt Car championships as an owner.

In the modern day, American racing fans often look to Kyle Larson as the king of motorsport discipline diversity, but that is a crown originally worn by Parnelli Jones. His skill behind the wheel was only truly rivaled by the fondness he inspired in the hearts of his fans and competitors; in many ways, he was both down to earth and larger than life.

Parnelli Jones died of natural causes in the town he called home for 83 years of his life, Torrance, California. He leaves behind his wife Judy, his sons PJ and Page, and his grandchildren Jagger, Jace, Jimmy, Joie, Jet, and Moxie. The racing world is undoubtedly a less colorful place without him.

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