The Amazing Racer
Hometown legend Parnelli Jones enjoyed a successful career in the fast lane. His incredible career inspired generations of racing fans and, most importantly, those who share his adrenaline-charged DNA.
- Written byDiane E.
Palos Verdes resident and motor racing legend Rufus Parnell “Parnelli” Jones is the personification of the American dream. But Parnelli did not always live a privileged life in the fast lane.
Though he calls Torrance his hometown, he was born in Arkansas in 1933 during the Great Depression. Unemployment, foreclosures and a severe drought that destroyed agriculture pushed his parents west, leaving behind 52 acres of family land and their livelihood in search of a more prosperous life in the Golden State.
They arrived in California when Parnelli was 2 years old, and his father supported them working on farms north of San Diego. Five years later they moved to Torrance during World War II to be closer to relatives, and his father found work that was spawned by the war in the shipyards.
The Jones family survived many hardships during those years. However, Parnelli’s parents’ marriage did not weather the storm. They divorced when he was 15 years old—the oldest of three children.
With the war over, the economy was booming again and Parnelli wore grit and determination like badges of honor as he set out to change the course of his life. He was not a fan of school, so work was imminent.
He was initially interested in horses and worked part-time at a riding stable where he bought a horse. But eventually cars captivated him. He sold his horse to buy a 1923 Ford hot rod, went to work at a gas station on Hawthorne Boulevard and got hooked on fast cars and street racing as a teenager in the South Bay.
“I tried to keep my kids from racing. It all started when they wanted me to take them with me to the Caesars Palace Grand Prix years ago. Page was about 7 then and was a pool hustler. There were three balls on the table, and he said, ‘If I put all three balls in, will you take us to Las Vegas?’”The local police (who knew him well) likely sighed with relief in 1952 when he debuted in his first official on-track stock car race at a small dirt track called Carrell Speedway in Gardena, setting the stage for what would become a lifetime of speed and fame. In the years to follow, Parnelli raced everything with wheels on it and won.
By 1960 he competed in his first Indy car race. Two years later he was the first driver to ever qualify for the Indianapolis 500 at a speed in excess of 150 mph, and in 1963 he won the race. He eventually retired from open cockpit racing and went on to win in other series, including Trans Am and off-road racing.
In addition to competing behind the wheel, Parnelli and his late partner, Vel Miletich, established one of the most winning teams in racing history with top gun racers including Mario Andretti, Al Unser and Joe Leonard. The team competed internationally in just about every racing series there was, from off-road to Formula One.
Parnelli retired from his illustrious racing career with countless wins and honors to his credit, including an induction to the Indianapolis Motorsports Hall of Fame. (Behind the Indianapolis 500 with Parnelli Jones is a short film scheduled for release in 2016 that chronicles his life as a professional racecar driver.)
His prowess on the track carried over to his business life. He and Vel built and sold a successful chain of Parnelli Jones Firestone tire stores and tire warehouses in the western United States and invested in commercial and industrial real estate. While Parnelli currently oversees the real estate holdings and he and his wife, Judy, support philanthropic causes in the community, he still has his hand in racing as the need for speed and hunger for competition lives on in the Jones family.
Before they piloted racecars, Parnelli’s sons, Parnell Velko “P.J.” and Page, had their first taste of competitive sports playing youth ice hockey when they were growing up in the
South Bay. But the apple does not fall far from the tree, as the saying goes, and following in their dad’s tire tracks was inevitable.
“I tried to keep my kids from racing. It all started when they wanted me to take them with me to the Caesars Palace Grand Prix years ago. Page was about 7 then and was a pool hustler. There were three balls on the table, and he said, ‘If I put all three balls in, will you take us to Las Vegas?’ I had to work and didn’t want to worry about them in Vegas so I said, ‘I will buy you go-karts instead.’”
Page effortlessly sunk the balls, Parnelli kept his promise, and the second generation of Jones racers was in the making. Karting for fun soon led to competitions organized by the California-based International Kart Federation (IKF) and the official beginning of P.J. and Page’s racing careers.
Page, the youngest of the two brothers, had numerous wins in midget, spring cars and road racing from 1989 until a devastating, near-death accident ended his career in 1994. He was leading the race when his car flipped upside down on the track. While it was stopped, the second-place car slammed into him—resulting in severe brain damage.
Page’s miraculous recovery defied the odds. Today he is married with children, works for the family business part-time, attends college, is an advocate for long-term rehabilitation for others with brain injuries and enjoys public speaking.
When asked if he misses racing, he says with a smile, “Yes, I do miss racing. I miss it all.” (Godspeed: The Story of Page Jones is a documentary that chronicles his rehabilitation and life journey after the crash.)
P.J. started racing before Page did and still occasionally competes in off-road events. His career was fast-tracked when the United States Auto Club named him the 1986 Rookie-of-the-Year in karting. He later went on to win numerous titles throughout the world in race cars, sports cars, trucks and off-road vehicles. His most distinguished accomplishment was his overall win at the 1993 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race in a GTP car.
P.J. is also a family man and resides in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife and children and operates his racing-related businesses there. PJ’s Performance builds and modifies four-wheel ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) for clients for both pleasure and competition. He also owns one of the largest distributors of radio-controlled cars in the western U.S.
The apples continued to fall close to the Jones family tree in the third generation. P.J.’s 13-year-old son, Jagger, and 11-year-old son, Jace, are carrying on the family legacy and can be found donning racing helmets and driving suits, competing behind the wheels of go-karts.
Jagger, an honor roll student who has his own website and an impressive fan following on Facebook, has his heart set on going to racing school in Italy and aspires to join the ranks of the elite in the motorsports world as a Formula One driver. Jace, on the other hand, is less concerned about results and enthusiastically enjoys racing and delights in passing other cars.
According to their famous grandfather, “Jagger is like his dad, P.J. He is very intense, very forward, knows what he wants and where he wants to go. Jace has a mind of his own and a lot of natural ability. He is very easygoing and a lot like my son, Page. I knew Jace was a natural when he was almost 3. The kids were driving an ATV four-wheeler, and when I turned the power down for safety, Jace said, ‘I’m not riding it anymore!’”
Page’s kids have sidestepped motorsports. Instead of lacing up racing shoes for sports competition, his 8-year-old daughter, Joie, and 11-year-old son, Jimmy, have taken to ice skates and have followed their father’s and uncle’s childhood passion for hockey. Like his cousin, Jagger, young Jimmy has his sights set on becoming a pro in his chosen sport.
He recently asked his coach about checking, a physical defensive technique. When the coach asked him if he was worried about getting hit, he responded, “No, getting penalized!”
Those who have the honor of knowing the Jones men can attest to their quick wits, fearlessness, contagious sense of humor, passion and competitive spirit. As Parnelli’s legacy lives on and they champion the racing endeavors of young Jagger and Jace, Page is a quiet reminder of the inherent risks that go hand-in-hand with the sport that has defined and shaped the lives of three generations of the Jones family.
Parnelli and his family established the Page Jones Fund Foundation to support programs that help others who suffer from brain injuries. For more information, visit godspeedpj.com/PJfoundation
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