Auto racing people always thought that Parnelli Jones quit too soon--only 34 when he ran his last Indianapolis 500 in 1967, retiring to build a string of tire stores and compete in the occasional, casual celebrity event.
Maybe it’s time for a comeback. Former peers such as Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt can still make a living driving Indy cars, but the celebrities are getting tough.
Jones has finished down the track or against the wall in the last six Pro/Celebrity Races he has run at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach since posting his only victory in 1980, when he was only 47.
“I’ve been second every year--you notice that?” he said.
Don’t look now, but here comes P.J. Jones, Parnelli’s eldest son and heir, filling up his father’s rear-view mirrors.
Both will be competing in the celebrity event at Long Beach Saturday, a warm-up for P.J. to the HFC American Racing Series event Sunday morning that he hopes will eventually lead him to Indy, where his father won in ’63, six years before P.J. was born.
Maybe P.J. will be able to help Saturday. The Joneses and the other pros, Dan Gurney and Jeff Andretti, must give the celebrities a 30-second head start.
“I’d rather see him win than another one of the pros,” P.J. said. “It might be a team thing for the first few laps. We’ll have to talk about it.”
Said Parnelli: “I told him that, but he’s a businessman. He said, ‘Maybe Gurney’ll pay me more.’ ”
More seriously, they will be talking about P.J.'s plan for the ARS race, one of a series of 12 races for identical open-wheel cars that parallel the CART Indy-car circuit as supporting events.
“I think I’m aiming toward Indy cars,” Jones said. “That’s been my goal since I was a little kid.”
In those days, when his retired father was running Indy-car teams, racing was already P.J.'s world.
“A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Mario (Andretti)--I grew up around them, with their sons around,” P.J. said
But when P.J. and Parnelli’s younger son Page, now 16, were ready to start racing Go Karts, their parents struck a deal with them.
“I had to go to college,” P.J. said. “It’s always been a deal that as long as I’m in school they’ll continue to help me. They want me to go to school as long as I can.”
Parnelli, a high school dropout, said: “Both my sons, I’ve cut their racing off once each and told ‘em they couldn’t race until they got their grades up. That’s worked well, and for that I’ve been rewarded with a couple of boys that haven’t been in any kind of trouble (and) have a great interest in a direction to go.”
P.J. grew up as a Go Kart hotshot, then broke into the local big-time at Ascot Park where Parnelli once raced. The year before P.J. graduated from Miraleste High School in ’87, he was already the USAC West Coast Midget circuit’s rookie of the year.
He now attends El Camino College in Torrance and is taking classes in business, small business management and marketing--lessons his father learned from his late mentor, J.C. Agajanian, and longtime business partner Vel Miletich.
“It gets harder and harder to make classes every day, with all the things you have to do along with racing, especially when I’m traveling back East,” P.J. said. “But I feel I’m learning something just being there when I can.”
Parnelli would prefer his son succeed on his own.
“He tries not to help me out of his own pocket,” P.J. said. “That’s always been the basic agreement. He told me flat out when I started racing that he wasn’t gonna pay for my racing. I understand that.”
P.J.'s full name is Parnell Velko Jones, the middle name borrowed from Miletich. He’ll turn 20 on April 23.
Parnelli has said the last few years that racing was never nearly as hard on him as watching his son race. His heart was in his mouth again during last weekend’s ARS race at Phoenix when P.J. became involved in a five-car crash.
“It’s like when you’re at the control of an automobile, you feel more secure than riding with somebody,” Parnelli said. “That’s your own flesh and blood out there.
“I was up on a motor home and it happened right in front of me. I could see he wasn’t taking any jolts, so I didn’t feel too concerned--other than it might catch on fire.”
Among race drivers of his era, the smooth and skillful Parnelli was known for not crashing. Some experts felt nobody else could have handled the tricky new four-wheel drive turbine car as well as he did when he ran away with the Indy race in ’67 before a bearing failed with four laps to go, leaving him sitting by the side of the track.
It may be too early to tell whether the genes and advice have been passed on successfully to P.J.
“I’m conservative, yet I’ll hang it out,” P.J. says. “If you’re leading the race there’s no reason to hang it out. I don’t want to be rubbing the fence, for my own personal interest. I like walking. I don’t like crashing.
“When I tested at Phoenix (last week), he said, ‘Just run some laps. You don’t have to be the quickest.’ ”
Said Parnelli: “P.J.'s going through a different learning curve. Today’s racing is a lot tougher because they have all these driving schools and more types of racing. Then, you just had to be very aggressive. It’s tougher today for young guys to get a break because it’s a financial battle, but there are a lot of talented drivers out there.”
Saturday’s race will be their first race as rivals. “We’ve run together on motorcycles and snowmobiles but nothing organized,” P.J. said. “I keep thinking that I know all his tricks, so I may have a little bit of an advantage.”