By the time Parnelli Jones’ sons, P.J. and Page, get to the Indianapolis 500--as they probably will--they won’t lack for experience.
P.J., 22, and Page, 19, already have been pegged as two of the most talented and versatile young racers in the country.
Perhaps the only reason they may not get to Indy is that they may be in the Daytona 500 first.
“Dad is pushing NASCAR because he says there are more opportunities in stock cars,” P.J. Jones said. “But I think if Page or I had our choice, we’d be at Indy.”
Parnelli did both. He won the Indy 500 in 1963 and almost won it three other times. In stock cars, he was a consistent winner on the old United States Auto Club circuit and won four Winston Cup races--then called Grand Nationals--one of them at Riverside in 1967.
“What we really want most, though, is just a chance to race,” Page added.”
Toward that end, they have been driving just about anything on wheels. This year, P.J. races in four series, Page in five.
P.J. drove USAC midgets on dirt and pavement, a Toyota MR2 in the Firestone Firehawk series, a Toyota GTP car at the Daytona 24-Hour race and a Buick-powered Wildcat in Indy Lights, a training series for Indy car hopefuls.
He also drove in an ice race in
Anchorage, Alaska, and a stock car race--the Reid Rondell enduro--last month at Saugus Speedway.
“I ran nose-to-tail with my dad for 50 laps at Saugus before I spun out,” P.J. said.
P.J.'s performances, mainly in the Firehawk series, where he had four victories and sat on the pole six times in 10 races, earned him a full-time ride next year with Dan Gurney’s Toyota GTP team as a teammate of Juan Fangio II in the International Motor Sports Assn. Camel GT series.
“I’ve been watching P.J. the last couple of years, and I like what I’ve seen,” Gurney said. “One thing for sure, he has the genes for it, just like Michael (Andretti) and Little Al (Unser). Or Juan.”
Juan Fangio II is the nephew of the five-time world champion from Argentina of the same name. Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr., the two most recent PPG Cup Indy car champions, are sons of former champions.
Page was one of the winningest drivers in USAC midgets on the West Coast in 1991 and also drove a turbocharged open-wheel Mondaile in the Barber Saab Pro series, a Ford Ranger in the Sports Car Club of America’s Truck Guard Challenge and a Wildcat in Indy Lights.
Next season, Page will return to the Barber Saab and USAC midget circuits and also will run in a few Indy Lights races. He had planned to run the Firehawk series again, but budget restraints prompted Toyota to withdraw its sponsorship, leaving Jones and former hydroplane champion Chip Hanauer without rides.
The younger Jones twice made USAC history this year. On July 4 at Cajon Speedway, he became the first driver to win a midget/three-quarter midget doubleheader on the same night, racing on asphalt. On Nov. 16 he repeated the feat at Ventura Raceway, the first time anyone had done it on dirt. Page Jones has won 11 USAC midget races in the last two seasons and had a streak of six in a row last summer.
Their most memorable race might have been Nov. 23 at Bakersfield Speedway in Oildale, where the brothers traded the lead five times before Page passed P.J. on the 39th lap and won the 40-lap main event.
“Dad must have been jumping up and down like a pushrod, worrying if we’d take each other out,” Page said, laughing. “He told us that if we ever took each other out we’d be the laughingstock of the whole place, that people would know we’re idiots.”
P.J. started in the front row with Page back in 12th position, but Page moved into contention after a spin took out several leaders and brought out a yellow flag. On the restart, Page shot into the lead and held it for seven laps before P.J. made an inside pass on the backstretch.
“I got it back a lap or so later when P.J. went high in Turn 4, but two laps from the end, P.J. ran up alongside me and we raced a whole lap side by side,” Page said. “He managed to squeeze by me, but I returned the favor on the next lap and got the checkered (flag).”
Parnelli Jones, 58, keeps a close tab on his boys, going to nearly every midget race and as many others as he can make. Next year, however, Parnelli will miss some races because he will be back driving a Ford Ranger for Bill Stroppe in desert off-road races. Jones is replacing veteran Manny Esquerra as the factory-team driver.
“To tell you the truth, we’ve been pushing him to get back in a car so it will take his mind off us,” P.J. said. “We sort of talked him into driving again. When he’s at our races, he wants everything done the way it was done when he was racing, and he doesn’t realize how much things have changed. He used to climb out and fix things himself, but nowadays you don’t do that. You consult with engineers before you make changes. He’s too impatient for that.”
Page added: “He doesn’t even wait until we get our helmet off. I have to tell him, ‘Dad, slow down.’ ”
Judy Jones, their mother, doesn’t often watch her sons race--in part because of the unusual circumstances she has witnessed.
“The first time I saw them in the same race, they were in karts and someone hit P.J. and he landed on top of Page,” she said.
At the 1990 Pacific Coast Nationals at Ascot Park, Judy was in the stands when P.J. bumped Jordan Hermansader in Turn 3 and the youngster from Palos Verdes Estates wound up flipping down the front straightaway. An unruly crowd, rooting against the Jones brothers beforehand, almost got out of hand when P.J. took the checkered flag.
“I couldn’t believe all the booing and jeering,” Judy said. “It didn’t seem like anyone there was for P.J.”
A few weeks later, when P.J. and Page were racing in the Turkey Night Grand Prix--Ascot’s final event--Judy bought a block of tickets for friends and relatives.
“I wanted to make sure the boys had their own rooting section,” she said. They almost had a winner. P.J. led the first 50 laps before losing to lead to eventual winner Stan Fox.
Rooting against the Jones boys has been a way of life at Southern California tracks since P.J. and veteran Sleepy Tripp, a cult hero of sorts among local midget race followers, became embroiled in a series of bumping incidents three seasons ago.
“It got so bad that the fans cheered when Sleepy put me on my head,” P.J. said.
After one rather obvious incident at Saugus in May 1989, when P.J. rammed Tripp in full view of everyone, the youthful Jones was suspended for 30 days.
“Tripp hit me twice. He put me in the fence, so I hit him once and he comes back and puts me upside down,” P.J. said. “When he came back around, I hit him good. I know I deserved to be suspended for what I did, but I don’t understand how Sleepy got off scot-free. He started it. He was trying to intimidate me, but I got 30 days and he got nothing.
“West Coast fans have always been against us. I guess they think Page and I have had everything given to us, but that’s not the way Dad’s done it. They seem to think that all we do is show up, helmets in hand, and climb into our car.
“Sure, we get some breaks because of who we are, but Page and I are often here (in the Torrance racing shop) until 3 a.m., working on the car, welding, fabricating, doing a lot of the work. We spend more time here than we do at home (in Rolling Hills).”
Parnelli said that he was angry at Tripp during the height of the feud.
“I wanted to grab a helmet and climb in a midget myself and take him on,” he said.
But he cooled down and says now that it was not Tripp’s fault so much as the USAC officials’.
“Sleepy’s an old-timer who knows all the little tricks you learn on a race track, especially pay-backs,” Parnelli said. “P.J. came out there, right out of high school, and presented a challenge to him. Sleepy decided to give him a lesson in bullying, and P.J. wouldn’t back down. If the officials had stepped in early, probably nothing more would have happened. But the more they let things go, the rougher it got.”
Page, who was not yet racing midgets, stirred the pot when he showed up at a race with a picture of Tripp surrounded by a red circle with a red slash across his face.
“It’s funny, when we race in the Midwest or anywhere outside of Southern California, we’re the good guys and everyone cheers us,” P.J. said. “It was the same way when Rich Vogler was racing. Around home in Indiana, he was the bad guy, but when he came out to Ascot he got the loudest cheers.”
The feud seemed to have simmered down last season. Some say it was because P.J. became a more sophisticated driver, tempering his aggressive tactics with smoother techniques. Others say it was Tripp who calmed down once he realized that the new kids on the block weren’t going to be intimidated.
“Little Rufus (P.J.) and his little brother are tough as nails on the track,” Tripp said last season. “They’re both going to be fine race drivers, but they’ve got to realize that this is a tough business.”
Even though they are called “little” because they are Parnelli’s sons, they are not little. P.J., the taller of the two, who bears a startling facial resemblance to his father, weighs 185 pounds. Page, built more like a block of granite, in the image of Parnelli, weighs 190 and is still growing.
“Maybe our size will work against us in Indy cars or Formula One,” P.J. said. “It’s easier to get in a big ol’ stock car when you’re up around 200 pounds. If I ever had the opportunity to drive a Formula One, I’d jump at it, but most of those drivers are the size of jockeys.”
The brothers already have international experience.
Page, when he was 16, raced go-karts in the Soviet Union and won one event in a Soviet vs. U.S.A. series.
“I had been racing indoors in Chicago when the Soviets invited a team over to race on the Bikerniek circuit in Riga, the capital of Latvia,” Page recalled. “I was the youngest member. I’m always the youngest in whatever I’m doing, it seems. Only two Americans won and I was one of them.
“We had seven races, all on the same course, a beautiful road circuit in a park. It was where the Russians trained. They were like Olympic athletes. They were paid to drive and that’s all they did. And all their training was on that track, so it was tough on us, but we were there two weeks and I got to visit Moscow. It was great fun.”
P.J. drove midgets in New Zealand on several occasions. He won a 30-lap main event in Auckland that was billed as being for the “world’s championship,” and he won two out of three in 1988 in a series that included such American stars as Fox and Gary Schroeder.
For a time, it appeared that P.J. might be a budding hockey star instead of a race driver. When he was 9, he led his Bay Harbor Red Wings team to the California state championship in Pee Wee Hockey with 98 goals in 30 games.
“I played hockey until I was 17, and it crossed my mind a few times about being a pro hockey player,” P.J. said. “At one time I thought I’d get a chance at the Olympic team, but I had knee surgery when I was 15, and about that time I got involved in racing and my hockey ambitions fell off.”
The Jones brothers’ racing legacy began on a pool table in a family vacation home near Parker, Ariz. Page was 11 or 12 at the time.
“We were shooting pool--me, P.J., Michael Chandler and my dad--and we were talking about the Caesars Palace Grand Prix coming up in Las Vegas,” Page recalled. “There were three balls left on the table when I said, ‘Dad, if I make them all, will you take me to the Grand Prix?’ He figured there was no way I could run the table, so he said, ‘Sure.’ Well, I made them all.
“A couple of weeks later, when it was about time to go to Vegas, he asked me if I’d rather have a go-kart and go racing instead. I said sure and he bought me a kart and bought P.J. one for Christmas.
“Before that, we’d had Odysseys and motorcycles. There was always racing stuff around the house and the shop. We’d probably started racing snowmobiles before we were 5, but when we got our karts we started getting serious about racing.”
Parnelli said the idea of racing probably started long before that--as soon as they came home from the hospital after being born.
“The first thing anybody put in their crib was a toy race car, and all the time they were growing up, I mean when they were really little, people would come over to the house and bounce P.J. or Page on their knees and say, ‘Are you going to be a race driver like your daddy?’ ” Parnelli said.
“I never encouraged them to become racers. In fact, I tried to discourage them a bit, but once they started taking it seriously and I saw from the start that they had a talent for it, I’ve supported them as much as I can.”
Last year, supporting P.J. even meant Parnelli’s driving for him in a Firestone Firehawk race at Laguna Seca while P.J. was racing Indy Lights in Toronto. P.J. did his part by passing Robbie Buhl for the victory in the Indy Lights race, but Parnelli couldn’t make it a father-son double. Parnelli took over the Toyota MR2 from Chris Cord in the lead, but two laps from the finish the gear box gave out.
“I found out it was a lot easier on me to go back into racing than to sit on the sidelines and watch my own flesh and blood out there,” Parnelli said.
“It’s scary, watching them during a race. I don’t mean I’m worried about their ability. It’s just that when I’m watching, I have no control of the situation. I’m completely confident they know what they’re doing, but it still scares the hell out of me.”