Parnelli Jones, was born Rufus Parnell on August 12th, 1933 to C.P. and Dovie Jones in Texarkana, Arkansas. The family moved to Torrance, California, where he grew up. His boy hood friend, Billy Calder named him Parnelli in hopes that the Jones family would not discover their son was racing cars as a minor. The name stuck. At the age of 17 Jones participated in his first race, a Jalopy race at the Carroll Speedway in Gardena, California. While Jones enjoyed the experience it did not convince him that racing would become his future profession. Throughout the 1950s Jones raced in numerous events driving midgets, sprint cars, stock cars and through his experiences developed remarkable skill behind the wheel. After winning the Midwest Sprint Car crown in 1960 he caught the attention of promoter, J.C. Agajanian. Agajanian sponsored him and during the course of their partnership they found success at many major racing events. Jones began racing Indy races in 1960 and by 1961 he had won the Co-Rookie of the year at the Indianapolis 500. In 1963 he took first place at the Indianapolis 500. In 1963 legendary vehicle fabricator Bill Stroppe built Jones a Mercury Marauder for the United States Automobile Club (USAC) series. They proved to be a great team. Parnelli won the USAC Stock Car Crown in 1964. In 1963 his Stroppe built car won Pike’s Peak Hill Climb setting a new stock car record. Despite the successes at the end of the 1964 season Mercury pulled out of sponsoring stock car racing. The Jones and Stroppe partnership built of mutual respect, of great vehicle fabricating and great driving would reunite later to become one of the best teams to ever hit the dirt in a vehicle.
In December of 1967 Ray Brock threw his annual Christmas Party inviting many of the top names in motorsports. At the party, in front of a large crowd, Stroppe suggested that Jones try his hand at off-road racing. Jones initially rejected the idea saying that he had already done his time on the dirt. Stroppe goaded back that perhaps off-road racing was too hard for Jones and that challenge sealed the deal. Jones would show Stroppe just what he could do with an off-road machine. Early in 1968 Jones and Stroppe teamed up for their first race at the Star Dust 7/11 a two day race through the Nevada desert covering 711 miles. Jones charged the course in the new Bronco. Jones had never driven the Bronco before the race day or even pre-run the course. According to an account by Stroppe Jones hit a dry wash at full speed blowing up his front tires and bending the wheels. Despite the accident Stroppe said that Jones had become fully hooked on off-road racing. In November of 1968 Jones with Stroppe as his co-driver entered the NORRA Mexican 1000. There, Jones in first place until the 150 mile marker, drove the vehicle until it broke. Jones and Stroppe had to find a way to keep their vehicles in one piece. During races Jones would push the vehicles at maximum speeds until they gave away, with Stroppe telling him at top volume the entire time to take it easier on the vehicle he had built. In 1970, Jones had a special car fabricated, it looked like a Bronco however it was made up of specialized racing parts which could handle the rigors he planned on putting it through. He named the vehicle “Big Oly” in reference to his Olympia Beer sponsorship. In 1970 Jones, with Stroppe as his co-driver lead the Mexican 1000 race from start to finish with a new record time of 14 hours and 59 minutes. He accomplished the feat again in 1973 this time taking the overall title in 16 hours and 42 minutes. In 1973 they also won the Baja 500 and the Mint 400. After a tragic accident in the 1974 SCORE Baja 500, Jones stepped away from racing off-road vehicles on a full time basis and increased his involvement in the sport as a vehicle owner.
Jones’ winning record as an owner paralleled his career as a driver. As the owner of Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing, he owned the champion car at the 1970 and 1971 Indy 500s, his cars won three straight USAC National Championships in 1971, 1972 and 1973. His 76 Chevy won the 1976 SCORE Truck Championship and in 1977 the CORE Class 2 Championships. Fellow Hall of Fame Inductee Walker Evans drove the vehicle. Also among the many wins, his vehicles took class wins at Baja 500 and 1000 and the USAC Dirt Car Championships twice and the Triple Crown three times. In addition to working with an extremely successful race program Jones succeeded as a businessman. He owned and operated a number of businesses among them: Parnelli Jones Enterprises a chain of retail and service shops for Firestone Racing Tires which operated in the 14 western states, Parnelli Jones Inc. which operated 47 retail Parnelli Jones Tire Centers in four states and Parnelli Jones Wholesale selling and distributing passenger car tires, shock absorbers and other automotive related products to retail tire dealers.
After Jones moved away from racing on a full time basis he continued to participate in special events such as celebrity races often coming in first against his peers and contemporaries. His accomplishments are recognized by over 20 Halls of Fame such as the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and the National Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Jones is married to Judy, the two are parents to P.J. and Page. They have three grandsons. Jones is an active golfer and participates in snow and water sports. He is involved with charities such as the City of Hope and the Daniel Freeman Hospital. Sources: International Motorsports Hall Of Fame Bio, 1990.