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Ode to Parnelli Jones, My Racing Hero

I was born too late to watch Parnelli race in person, but his ability to master anything on wheels won me over. Well, that and the stories he told.
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I read the headline along with everybody else yesterday: “Parnelli Jones, 1933-2024.” The race car drivin’, middle finger flippin’ fan-favorite has passed on at 90 years old. Death isn’t always cause for sadness in my book, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little low when I learned the news. If you’re interested in knowing why, stick around and I’ll explain.

Unlike Robin Miller, one of the great racing journalists to ever do it, I never chatted for hours with Rufus (Parnelli’s legal first name), nor did I even meet him. But as you so often hear when someone dies, I felt like I knew him well. I spent my teenage years reading about him in any racing magazine I could grab hold of, watching grainy footage of his career on YouTube, and listening to him tell the tales in his own words during countless candid interviews. And while I’ve never hustled an open-wheel car in anger, let alone won the Indy 500, I believe Parnelli and I had a lot in common.

Photo by Eric Rickman/The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images

He was an Arkansas boy from Texarkana, well south of where I’ve lived my whole life in the Missouri Ozarks but still close enough for me to identify with him. Also like Parnelli, I had an affinity for old Ford Broncos—I only wish I could’ve seen him driving Big Oly for Bill Stroppe at Baja way back when. It seemed like everything he did clicked with me, all the way down to piloting a Trans-Am Ford Mustang Boss 302 with “Jacobs,” my last name, hand-lettered on the driver-front fender. For more reasons than I can accurately recall right now, Parnelli was my guy. He just was.

One Christmas, my family gifted me the greatest t-shirt I’ve ever had the pleasure of staining. It featured an awesome Roger Warrick illustration with Parnelli driving the STP-Paxton turbine car for Andy Granatelli, waving as he drove past Mario Andretti who, with a smile on his face, held up his middle finger. Even though he won Indy in 1963, Parnelli was maybe best known for that 1967 race which he came so close to winning, breaking down with only eight miles to go. I know that’s what comes to my mind when I think of him at IMS because as a fresh racing fan in the 2010s, the idea of a turbine car from 50 years ago was just plain great.

At 90, Parnelli was the oldest living Indy 500 winner. At 26, I never came close to watching him race in person. But his conversational character and obvious love for recounting stories from yesteryear sealed the deal for me. His autobiography wears maybe my favorite book title ever: As a Matter of Fact, I Am Parnelli Jones. How could you not see that on the shelf and at least read the back cover?

Maybe more than anything, though, it was hearing how his buddies talked about him that helped me realize just how special he was. Racer pulled this from its archive and published it Wednesday morning, and I feel like it’s the perfect way to close. From his good friend who passed away in 2021, Robin Miller:

“The 1963 Indy 500 winner is regarded as one of the best and most versatile drivers ever—by rivals, chief mechanics and just about anyone lucky enough to watch him in a midget sprinter, roadster, dirt car, sports car, stock car, Trans Am or at Baja.

“He won in every category except Formula 1, where he never competed but turned down Colin Chapman’s offer to be the team’s B driver. Rufus thrived and survived in open-wheel racing’s deadliest era, and never spent one night in the hospital. In his seven starts at Indianapolis, he led 492 laps and could have easily won five of them with a little bit of luck. A.J. Watson said he was the best that ever drove at Indy and Jones’ performances make a pretty good argument.

“He’s one of those legends that don’t need a last name: A.J., Mario and Parnelli.”

Miller, you’re exactly right. I hope you guys are together now.

Got a favorite Parnelli story to share? Email it to me: caleb@thedrive.com