During the Month of May, correspondent Phillip B. Wilson spent a few minutes with 1963 “500” champion Parnelli Jones, talking about his first Indy 500 in 1961.
Phillip B. Wilson: What specifically do you remember about your first Indianapolis 500?
Parnelli Jones: First of all, I could have come here the year before in ’60, and even maybe ’59 because I had people who wanted me to come and drive for ‘em. I wanted to wait and make sure I had a decent car. I almost won Milwaukee and came here in the summer of ’60. They let me take it out and I really fell in love with the car. They chewed me out for running so fast. I told them, “I think I can break the track record right now.” They said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I told ‘em, “I’m not kidding you.” That was the Detroit Mobile Homes car. I’m looking for that car to come back in ’61. I was leading at Milwaukee in that car with 12 laps to go and the torque on it broke. So they had Tony Bettenhausen take a ride in it and he nearly broke the (Indianapolis Motor Speedway) track record. Tony, he liked me, he was driving for Lindsey Hopkins and told Hopkins, “Either buy me that car or build me my own or I’m going to go drive for Aggie (J.C. Agajanian).” That’s how I ended up with Aggie.
So when I came here, I had high hopes. I figured, even though I was in a different car, I went out and was having trouble passing the last phase of my driver’s test. I was driving it into the corner so deep, I wasn’t picking the throttle up. Johnny Boyd took me around at 6 o’clock to see what I was doing wrong. He said, “You’re not picking the throttle up.” The next day, sure enough I went out and gained 5 mph, so easy, just like that (snaps fingers). I qualified fifth.
PW: So you were confident. You weren’t your average rookie?
PJ: No. I was running fourth when Jim Rathmann was leading it, Rodger Ward was running second and Eddie Sachs was running third. I was running behind those two and Rathmann had a little bit of a lead. We went down the back straightaway, Sachs pulled out and tried to pass Rodger and I was in their slipstream. I just motored by both of ‘em. Then I figured I’d better run (Turns) 3 and 4 very hard, so I ran through their hard and I caught Rathmann coming off of 4. In half a lap, I was leading the race. I led the race for 27 laps.
PW: What was that like?
PJ: That was a thrill. I had a lot of confidence in myself.
PW: Nice to be out front, wasn’t it?
PJ: Not only that, I was running quicker than everyone else. I think I could have won that race very easily.
PW: What’s going through your mind when you were leading?
PJ: You keep going and nobody was gaining on me. Then I lost a cylinder. I had to come in the pits. Then I lost two cylinders. In a four-cylinder engine, that’s pretty sick. They put a new set of plugs in it. I’d go out and run for a while and ruin the same plugs again. It was just too rich. That was the same car I came back and ran the 150 mph lap the next year.
PW: So you left here disappointed in 1961?
PJ: I couldn’t wait until the next year. That’s the way I felt. It seemed like too far from year to year.
PW: Did you have an appreciation for the place before you drove?
PJ: Oh yeah, I was here in 1960 with Jim Hurtubise when he almost set a new track record. When they interviewed him afterward, he said, “That ain’t nothing. Wait until Parnelli gets here.” Him and I had been running sprint cars all over.
PW: You did well at the Speedway?
PJ: Yeah, it just came natural to me. It’s the height of auto racing, and winning the race is like giving you a title. You’re not just another race driver from then on, you’re a winner, you’re the 1963 Indy 500 winner. They don’t talk about my sprint car racing. I was a two-time national sprint car champion, Midwest sprint car champion, stock car champion, Pikes Peak champion.
PW: And you’re still sentimental about this track?
PJ: This place here, when you drive through that tunnel, it’s awe. And it’s never changed. Even today when I drive in, it’s an awe feeling. That feeling always comes back.