PARNELLI JONES : Racing Legend Will Drive in a Race He's Sponsoring

Times Staff Writer

Parnelli Jones became a racing legend here two decades ago when he won a Times Grand Prix, a NASCAR stock car race and a Trans-Am sedan race on the twisting Riverside International Raceway course.

Today, he returns to the track with a day in his name.

Two races--the Parnelli Jones Sports 2,000 and the Parnelli Jones Firestone Firehawk Endurance Challenge--will serve as a prelude to Sunday's 10th annual Times Grand Prix of Endurance.

Jones will preside over the Sports 2,000 race--a 30-minute sprint starting at 2:15 p.m.--and then climb into his driving uniform and compete with drivers of 75 other showroom stock sedans in the three-hour Firehawk race.

"I drove in the first race at Riverside in 1958 and I wanted to drive in the last one," the 53-year-old Jones said. "That's why I'm here. Of course, I drove in one two years ago when I thought it was going to be the last one.

"Now, it looks like I'll have to get me a stock car ride to be in the last race."

Several closing dates have been announced for the 30-year-old Riverside facility, the most recent being sometime in November after the Winston West 500 stock car race. The newest rumor, however, is that there is a possibility the track will stay open through at least part of the 1988 season.

No one knows just when the track will close, except Fritz Duda, the track's majority stockholder, and either he isn't sure himself, or he's not saying.

In the meantime, Jones will drive a turbocharged Nissan 300ZX in today's three-hour race, with Steve Johnson of La Verne as his co-driver. The car is owned by Bob Yakushi, a Nissan engineer from Redondo Beach.

"I don't want to make a steady career of racing cars again but I still enjoy it and I feel like I do it well," Jones said. "Once in a while I get in one of those celebrity races, like at Long Beach, and I get a taste of the excitement again.

"I read somewhere where this was going to be my last race. I hope not. I don't expect to be racing against my kids, like Mario (Andretti) and Big Al (Unser), but I have too much fun racing to quit completely."

One of Jones' two sons, P.J., who turned 18 Thursday, is already racing professionally in the United States Auto Club's midget division.

P.J., a senior at Miraleste High in Rolling Hills, will miss watching his father today because he will be in Ventura for a USAC Western Regional midget race tonight.

"I'll tell you, it's no thrill watching your children race," Parnelli said. "Now I know what I did to my parents. It's tough to have to sit and watch . . . and worry."

The younger of Jones' sons, Page, is 14 and racing karts.

"I guess the reason there are so many second-generation drivers today is because from the time they were born, they had race cars in their crib," Jones said. "The first toy the son of a race driver gets is a model race car. And they've all been around racing personalities and cars all their lives."

P.J. was two weeks old when Parnelli and Judy Jones took him to his first Indianapolis 500. Parnelli was there as owner of the Johnny Lightning Special that Al Unser drove to victory.

"I remember once I was being interviewed at the Speedway and the interviewer turned to P.J. and said, 'And here's the winner of the 1990 Indy 500,' " Parnelli recalled.

"It's hard to break that chain. Both of my children were excellent Little League players and home run hitters, but I couldn't keep their interest there. As soon as they'd get out of school, instead of playing ball, they'd head for the race shop.

"I can honestly say that I never wanted them to become race drivers, but I never said no to their inclination, either."

P.J. is doing quite well in the midgets.

In his last race, at Ascot Park, he started outside in the front row, lost his brakes in mid-race and still finished sixth. In a recent USAC regional race at Ventura, he was second, beaten only by two-time national champion Sleepy Tripp.

"If the boys are going to be racers, I think they need to get the feel of wheel-to-wheel racing and the only place to get it is in karts, midgets and sprint cars," Parnelli said. "You get a depth of racing experience you don't get from just going to driver's school and running in road races.

"Now that P.J. is 18, I expect he'll be moving into a Super Vee or a sprint car before long."

When he does, P.J. will be the facing the same situation his father faces today--the prospect of having a Parnelli--or P.J.--Jones win a race sponsored by Parnelli Jones Firestone.

"We have 35 retail outlets and my partner (Vel Miletich) and I sell a lot of racing tires so we decided we ought to sponsor some races," Jones said. "We signed a three-year deal with the California Racing Assn. sprint cars and we're doing these two races Saturday with The Times."

Jones rates his win in the 1964 Times Grand Prix as one of the top thrills in his career.

"I was driving Carroll Shelby's King Cobra and it was a heck of a race on that road course," he said. "I was pretty much an oval track racer and it seemed like I was off in the dirt as much as I was on the pavement.

"I guess my first really big thrill was becoming the first driver to run 150 (m.p.h.) at the Speedway. And then I came back the next year (1963) for the biggest thrill of all, winning the 500. I'd rate The Times win and winning the Pikes Peak hill climb next."

Jones' first competition on Riverside's nine-turn track was on opening day in 1958 when track president Paul Schissler scheduled three main events, one for midgets, one for sprint cars and one for stock cars.

"I drove 'em all," Jones recalled with a grin. "I was second in the midget race and I was leading in the stock car race by about four laps after 400 miles when my engine quit.

"It's a shame, especially from a driver's standpoint, to see Riverside about to close. It's been good to me, and it's been good to racing. There isn't probably a track in the country, outside the Speedway, with the atmosphere and the nostalgia that Riverside has."

Jones is no stranger to the Firehawk cars. He drove here in a similar race in 1985 and led the first 107 laps in a Camaro before the engine went sour.

Today's race is the second of a 10-race series designed for racing with a minimum of expenses. All the cars must be street legal, which means mufflers and catalytic converters.

Bill Bayley of Orchard Lake, Mich., and Andy Pilgrim of Plano, Tex., won the opener at Sebring, driving a Pontiac Firebird. They will be in today's race, as will one of the defending series champions, Tom Kendall of Flintridge-La Canada.

Kendall, who won last year's Riverside race with Max Jones, of Long Beach, in a Nissan, has a new partner, Jack Baldwin of Woodstock, Ga., a new Chevy Camaro, and a new team, Mecum Racing.

Kendall and Baldwin finished 23rd at Sebring.

Among the Firehawk entries are former skiing champions Phil and Steve Mahre of Yakima, Wash.; Joe Varde of Tampa, Fla., the 1983 Champion Spark Plug Challenge champion; and Terry Earwood of Atlanta, a Skip Barber Racing School instructor.

The Firehawk race will start at 3 p.m.

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