During a 10-year span in the late 1960s and early '70s, Indy cars designed, built and prepared in the Vel's Parnelli Jones racing shop in Torrance dominated open-wheel racing.
Vel Miletich, a Torrance car dealer, and Parnelli Jones, a Torrance native who won the Indianapolis 500 in 1963, were partners in VPJ enterprises, continuing an association that began in 1956 when Miletich sponsored the young jalopy driver in local races.
Miletich, 73, a big man with a big heart and big ideas, succumbed to leukemia last Thursday.
"Vel and I have been friends for over 42 years and have been partners for the last 34 years," Jones said. "He will be truly missed by all his friends and associates, but mostly by myself."
Their Johnny Lightning cars, driven by Al Unser, won Indianapolis 500s in 1970 and 1971, and VPJ entries won 51 other Indy car races with such drivers as Mario Andretti, Kevin Cogan, A.J. Foyt, Joe Leonard and Danny Ongais, besides Unser. Their drivers also won three U.S. Auto Club championships.
When they had Indy 500 winners Unser and Andretti and national champion Leonard at the same time, it was called "Super Team."
Team cars entered 276 USAC national championship races, qualified on the pole 47 times and finished in the top three 100 times. In addition to the two Indy wins, VPJ cars finished second twice and third twice in the 500, and first twice and second twice in the Ontario 500.
VPJ also fielded a Formula One car for Andretti in 1975, and although it didn't win any races, it led to a revolution in Indy car engines. Dissatisfied with the four-cylinder Drake-Offy engines popular at the time, Miletich decided to modify the Cosworth F1 V-8 engine for use in their Indy cars. Unser first won with the new engine at Pocono in 1976, and by 1978, nearly half the starting field at Indy was using Cosworths.
"I was racing jalopies in 1956 when Vel said he'd like me to drive a stock car for his Ford dealership," Jones recalled. "We really hit it off, and by 1964 we became business partners in Parnelli Jones Enterprises."
That relationship grew from a single tire store in Torrance to more than 45 retail locations, three wholesale warehouses and a racing tire distributorship.
Miletich, who was born in Lead, S.D., but raised and schooled in Torrance, is survived by his wife, Ljepa , whom he met while visiting his parents' home in Yugoslavia; a son, Dusan, a freshman at UCLA; and a daughter, Sandra, a sophomore at Chadwick School.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church Restoration Fund, P.O. Box 534, San Gabriel, CA 91776, or the Audrey S. Geisel Cancer Foundation, P.O. Box 1827, La Jolla, CA 92038.
Paul Tracy has been put on probation by CART's chief steward, Wally Dallenbach, for "unjustifiable risk or reckless endangerment," and the Team Kool Green driver is not happy about it.
Tracy, in a statement sent to CART and media representatives, said he accepted responsibility for a collision with Christian Fittipaldi at Detroit on June 7 and had apologized to Fittipaldi, but that probation was unwarranted, considering other CART incidents.
"I do take issue with what seems to me to be CART's arbitrary and inconsistent application of sanctions and penalties," Tracy wrote.
"If I am to be placed on probation for attempting to pass a car at 35 mph at Detroit, why was no action taken when Christian more or less forced me into the wall while trying to overtake me at Long Beach [repeating the equally unsuccessful maneuver he tried with Greg Moore in 1996]? Or when Gil de Ferran hit my rear wheel with his front wheel at Rio? Or, for that matter, when Max Papis hit Arnd Meier at Gateway? Or when Patrick Carpentier pinched down on Michael Andretti at Milwaukee?
"I cite these incidents not because I believe that two, three or four wrongs make a right, but because I think CART should treat every wrong equally."
CART's FedEx series continues Sunday with the Budweiser-G.I. Joe's 200 on Portland (Ore.) International Raceway's road course. PPG Cup champion Alex Zanardi won his first CART race there in 1996.
LAND SPEED RECORD
Craig Breedlove has called off the attempt he hoped to make on the land speed record later this summer, citing failure to get adequate financial sponsorship.
Breedlove claims his car is capable of 800 mph at Nevada's Black Rock Desert, which would be more than enough to wrest the record of 763.035 mph from England's Andy Green, but said he is $500,000 short of making an attempt this year.
"We had a cutoff date of June 15," he said from his home in Rio Vista, Calif. "Even if someone backed in with a dump truck and deposited a half-million dollars in the driveway, we still couldn't get the job done in 1998. But we'd sure start gearing up for 1999."
Southland midget drivers are running 1-2-3 in USAC's national series.
Ricky Shelton of Huntington Beach, last year's Western States champion, is the USAC leader after winning Wednesday night's main event at Anderson (Ind.) Speedway. Second is Jay Drake of Canyon Country, the 1996 Western States champion, with Jason Leffler of Long Beach, last year's USAC national champion, third.
Leffler passed his Indy Racing League driver's test in an Indy car last Monday, running laps between 207 and 219 mph at Texas Motor Speedway. He will continue to drive in USAC races while pursuing an Indy car ride.
Alex Harris of Simi Valley, who won the USAC three-quarter midget title last year with nine victories in 16 starts, is undefeated in five races after last Saturday night's win at Ventura Raceway during "Sleepy Tripp Night."
In Western States competition, Rick Hendrix of Simi Valley is the full midget leader, followed by 52-year-old Wally Pankratz. Pankratz's daughter, Randi, is second in three-quarter midgets, behind Harris.
The TQs and Western States full midgets will be at Bakersfield Speedway in Oildale for a doubleheader Saturday night.
Cory Witherill, a Navajo and the only full-blooded Native American in open-wheel racing, will make his debut Sunday in the PPG-Dayton Indy Lights race at Portland International Raceway. Like Rick Mears and Robby Gordon, Witherill earned his racing spurs as a winning off-road racer. Witherill, a 24-year-old from Santa Monica, won the Super 1600 championship in the Pace Motor Sports stadium series and the Valvoline de Montreal autocross.
"I always hoped, as a Native American, I would set an example and open doors for other Native Americans in the world of professional sports," he said. "I am proud to use my racing career in a way that will also help to make a difference in the lives of many other Native Americans."
Not entered are the Team Mears cousins, Clint and Casey Mears, who are skipping the race for financial reasons.
Andrew Craig, CART's chief executive officer, is the latest to be honored as a PPG Colorful Character. The award was created in 1995 "to recognize members of the racing community who add color, style, personality and fun to the series." . . . The city of Susanville, Calif., north of Lake Tahoe, has declared next Wednesday as "Mike Skinner Day" in honor of the Winston Cup driver who began his racing career at Susanville Speedway.
Virginia Barnes, a pioneer in motorsports management and marketing, died of cancer June 11 at her home in Monarch Beach. Barnes, 57, had been involved in motor racing since 1979. She worked as a timer and scorer for the Roger Penske and Pat Patrick Indy car teams, then in later years, she and husband Bruce handled personal service accounts for racing personnel. A veritable who's who in motor racing helped fill St. Catherine's Church in Laguna Beach for services Tuesday. Among the mourners were Bobby and Al Unser, Parnelli Jones, Johnny Rutherford, Roger Mears, Dan Gurney, Kevin Cogan, Patrick, Jim McGee and Chris Pook. Survivors include husband Bruce, daughters Gerianne Johnson of Laguna Niguel, Laurie Soucy of Antioch, Jennifer Burrows of Santa Barbara, Julie Barnes of Monarch Beach, son Thomas Barnes of Colorado Springs, Colo., and seven grandchildren. The family requests donations be made to the Virginia Barnes Memorial Fund, Hoag Cancer Center, P.O. Box 6100, Newport Beach, CA 92658.