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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Parnelli's ideas on how IndyCar racing should go forward

by Gordon Kirby
Parnelli Jones is one of the living legends of American racing up there in the pantheon with Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney. Jones dominated three of the seven Indy 500s he started and won the race in 1963, beating Jim Clark. He looked to be a clear winner again in 1967 with Andy Granatelli's STP turbine car, but a driveshaft bearing broke with only four laps to go and after the race Parnelli retired from driving open cockpit cars. Granatelli wanted him to drive his turbine car again in '68 but Jones thought the Lotus turbine would be quicker and he decided against racing the car again.

Parnelli continued to race in Trans-Am, Can-Am and off-road cars and trucks. He won the 1970 Trans-Am championship with a Bud Moore Ford Mustang, beating Mark Donohue and Penske Racing by a single point when the Trans-Am series was one of the USA's top racing series, brimming with manufacturer-backed teams.

He also won the Baja 1,000 in 1971 and '72, and his resume includes four NASCAR stock car victories, the 1964 USAC stock car championship and the 1961 and '62 USAC Sprint car titles. And people like Mario Andretti and Bobby and Al Unser say that Parnelli was the best driver they've ever seen at Indianapolis where Jones qualified on the first two rows for all seven 500s he started and led 492 laps.

Then there was his career as a team owner in partnership with Vel Miletich. Vel's Parnelli Jones racing won the Indy 500 with Al Unser in 1970 and '71, three consecutive USAC championships in 1970, '71 and '72 with Unser and Joe Leonard and a total of forty USAC Championship races between 1968-'77. VPJ also produced the first Cosworth-powered Indy car, developed by John Barnard and driven successfully by Al Unser, and a similar F1 car raced by Mario Andretti from late 1974 through early '76. VPJ's cars were usually beautiful and often revolutionary.

VPJ also built and developed a series of Ford and Chevrolet off-road trucks for Parnelli to race while he expanded his business interests with Miletich, becoming a very successful Firestone tire distributor and property developer in Southern California. Today, at seventy-four, Jones remains as sharp as ever, and as knowledgeable a man about racing as anyone alive. Parnelli is delighted to see a unified IndyCar series emerge from the sport's long civil war, but he emphasizes that the real work begins now.

"We need to build respect for Indy car racing again and the only way we're ever going to get there is to make some dramatic changes," Jones observes. "It's a great start that the two series have merged back together, but it's not the answer. When you've got fifty cars like NASCAR, then you've got something. It's been embarrassing to go watch qualifying at Indianapolis in recent years. There's nobody there. We used to have 250,000 people show up for the first day of qualifying. But today, we don't have respect for the Indy winners that we used to have."

Like many of us, Parnelli believes the most important factor is for the sanctioning body to take control and devise a new formula that will create plenty of competition among engine and car builders.

"Before we go forward they've got to step back and take a long look," he comments. "You can't let the manufacturer run the series. What made all the series in the world in the first place, even NASCAR, is having all those different types of cars for people to root for. But it's easier said than done.

"They've got to get more than one manufacturer. I have nothing against Honda, but right now Honda is calling the shots. NASCAR controls not only the drivers and teams but they control the manufacturers, and that's what Indy car racing needs to get back to.

"We need to have competition and we need to look at it not just from a technical, Formula 1-type mentality. We need to look at it from an entertainment value because we have to compete against so many other entertainments in this country. It's not anymore about going out and seeing who's the best racer and seeing how many laps he can lead or how quick he can lap the field. Those days are gone.

"We need to be entertaining but how do you get there? You're not going to get there with one manufacturer supplying the same thing to everybody because there's no entertainment value and there's nothing for you writers to write about!"

Jones believes the best way forward is to design a rocker arm engine formula. He believes that in the long run this would bring manufacturers back into Indy car racing in the best possible way.

"My idea is that they ought to go to rocker arm engines because you can buy all the parts in the United States," Parnelli explains. "Get rid of the manufacturers. Let them go by the wayside and you would have the Childresses and Hendricks building engines for Indy. Make them 260 or 270 cubic inches and you can buy all those parts. Not everyone could build a Hendrick engine but they could grow into that.

"Don't call them stock-blocks. Call them rocker arm engines and you could have guys building Chevies, Fords, Dodges and Toyotas. Then the manufacturers would come back and start supporting the teams that are running their product. But this time the sanctioning body controls it. That's my take on how the sanctioning body gets control back."

Parnelli also believes that all the modern electronic and digital controls and monitoring devices should be removed from the cars. He thinks these things have done nothing to improve motor racing or the quality of the show.

"Electronics has probably screwed up racing more than anything," he declares. "Electronics and aerodynamics, too. There are a lot of good race drivers today but the real difference is in the equipment. We used to think it was a fifty-fifty deal in our day, but today, if you don't have an eighty or ninety percent car, you can't win."

Jones adds that the proliferation of entry-level forms of racing over the past forty years has been a good thing. "Today, because there's more people and driving schools and go-karts and quarter midgets and all this stuff for the young kids, there are a lot more driver opportunities and probably they're getting better because of all that."

Like most of us, Parnelli is perplexed about why the United States has struggled unsuccessfully over the past thirty years to produce a competitive American F1 driver.

"In Formula 1, the organization doesn't seem to respect American drivers," he remarks. "In my day, they were very good to us. But today, I don't think they're very good to the American people. Mario put up a good presentation in Formula 1, but I don't think Michael did, and from that time on they don't think American drivers are good at all. But it really doesn't make any difference where you come from. It's in the individual and his learning and background.

"You could say the same thing about European drivers in NASCAR," Parnelli adds. "They haven't done too much down there. They might do well on a road circuit. Don't get me wrong. It's about the equipment too, and the background training. In stock car racing you've got to have a feel for what to do with those cars. A newcomer who's been running open-wheel has no idea what he's looking for. He has to go through a real long learning curve. I learned that with PJ because when he was down there one of the mechanics said to me, 'It's going to take a while before he learns the car and what to do with it.'."

Jones is especially impressed with defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

"You have to click with the chief mechanic and Jimmie Johnson is a perfect example," Parnelli says. "In my opinion, Jimmie Johnson has the greatest patience of any driver I've ever seen. He's an Al Unser Sr. He's phenomenal and he works so well with his chief mechanic. He can tell him what the car is doing and I think that's really the outstanding thing when a driver can really communicate well with his mechanic and that guy understands what the driver needs when he says something so that he makes the right corrections and by the time the end of the race comes the car is in pretty good shape."

Parnelli Jones knows a thing or two about racing. Over the next year or two, as the powers-that-be determine the Indy car of the future they should think seriously about Parnelli's ideas. A guy like him who's cut a broad swathe across the sport deserves to be listened to.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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