INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - As the oldest living winner of the Indianapolis 500, Parnelli Jones will occupy a special place of honor on Sunday when “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” celebrates its centennial.
Over a spine-tingling century of high-octane triumphs and tragedies at the sprawling Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Jones has been part of more than half of them either as a driver, owner or distinguished spectator.
And while his duties this year will be mostly limited to an ambassador’s role, the 82-year-old is quick to point out that he has never retired from racing.
But today it is the busy Los Angeles freeways that test Jones’s nerve and patience rather than the sprawling 2.5 mile oval where he battled wheel-to-wheel against the likes of American running mate A.J. Foyt and British drivers Graham Hill and Jim Clark.
“I’m still not retired,” Jones told Reuters in a telephone interview with Reuters from his California home. “Every day is race day in LA.
“You better pay attention, people are talking on their phones and texting. You got to be on your toes, it’s kind of like driving a race car.”
Jones has not been part of the Indy starting grid for decades but has left an indelible mark on the 500 putting cars in Victory Lane as both a driver (1963) and owner (1970, 1971) with Al Unser at the wheel of the Johnny Lightning Special.
A feared competitor, Mario Andretti labeled Jones the greatest of his era while Jackie Stewart described him as someone always up for a fight.
“Parnelli Jones at Indianapolis was as smooth as can be,” Stewart told Reuters. “A really good racing driver.
“He’s a rough guy, he could punch somebody on the chin before he’s had breakfast, but on the racetrack absolutely flawless.”
By all accounts Jones and 81-year-old Foyt, a four-time winner at the Brickyard, were two men not to be messed with on or off the track.
Hard men, both tough as nails, who gave no quarter in an unforgiving era of motor racing.
Jones made his Indianapolis 500 debut in 1961 where he was named rookie of the year following a race in which he led early before being hit with debris that bloodied his face, blurred his vision and slowed him to a 12-th place finish.
He returned the following year and made history as the first driver to top 150 miles per hour at the Speedway. In 2016, Canada’s James Hinchcliffe grabbed the pole with a four lap average of 230 mph.
Jones dominated the 1962 race until fate once again stepped in and scuttled hopes for victory with a brake failure.
But in 1963 Lady Luck was riding with Jones who held on to beat Clark despite an oil leak that had threatened to see him black-flagged with just a few laps to run.
“The speedway wasn’t always great to me but at times it was good to me and it gave me that title. There is no other one like it,” said Jones. “Luck, desire, ability and equipment all play a part in racing.
“I was hurt pretty bad in ‘62 when I led the race and lost the brakes. I had everybody handled and that hurt me a great deal but winning in ‘63 was my biggest thrill.
“There are a lot of great race drivers that have a lot of talent and maybe they are lacking the killer instinct, that desire they need to reach last plateau.
“Some of the guys I raced against had this tremendous desire and will to win, you’ve got to take it, not just be a participant.”
Jones, who took the name Parnelli in an effort to avoid being found out by his parents that he was racing, has tried his hand at almost every form of the sport.
He has competed in NASCAR, sports cars, midgets and off road racing. While Jones never drove in Formula One he did own a team in the mid-70s. From Monaco to Pikes Peak to the Baja 1,000 Jones made it his goal to get to the checkered flag first.
But it is the Brickyard and the Indy 500 that continues to provide thrills.
“When you go there you go through the tunnel and inside and you kind of have a thrill that goes over your whole body,” said Jones. “All the racing years there and you’re part of it, it’s a thrill every time you go there.”
Editing by Frank Pingue