Parnelli Jones, 1963 Indianapolis 500 champion, dead at 90

Parnelli Jones

Parnelli Jones, a champion auto racer and team owner who won the 1963 Indianapolis 500, died Tuesday. He was 90.

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Jones died at Torrance Medical Center in Torrance, California, surrounded by family and friends, his son, P.J., told The New York Times. He had been treated for Parkinson’s disease, which was diagnosed a decade ago, according to the newspaper. His son also announced the racer’s death in a Facebook post.

Jones won the 47th running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1963, setting a qualifying record of 151.153 mph and winning the race by 33 seconds over Jimmy Clark, the Indianapolis Star reported. He was leading the 1967 race when he broke down, according to WXIN-TV.

Jones’ victory in 1963 was controversial, as his car had leaked oil and began smoking, the Star reported. Race officials considered black flagging the race but were persuaded not to, according to the newspaper.

Drivers Eddie Sachs and Roger McCluskey claimed they had spun in Jones’ trail of oil. At a luncheon the next day, Sachs complained and Jones punched him, the Star reported.

As Jones told MotorSport magazine in 2013: “I said, ‘I oughtta bust you in the mouth.’” Jones told MotorSport magazine in 2013, according to the Times. “And he said, ‘Go ahead.’ So I let him have it.”

In 1967, Jones led the Indianapolis 500 with four laps to go before a bearing failure dropped him into sixth place, according to the newspaper.

At the time of his death, Jones was the oldest living winner of the Indianapolis 500, WXIN reported.

Jones was later a team owner with his business partner, Vel Miletich, the Times reported. He sponsored Al Unser Sr., who won at the Brickyard in the 1970 and 1971 Indianapolis 500s.

“Parnelli Jones was the greatest driver of his era,” Mario Andretti once said, according to the Times. “He had aggressiveness and also a finesse that no one else possessed. And he won on everything he put his hands on.”

Jones won six IndyCar races and four times on the NASCAR circuit, according to the newspaper. His team also competed in Formula One events.

The driver also had 25 wins in sprint cars, 25 victories in midget cars and four Baja distance wins, the Star reported.

Rufus Parnell Jones was born in Texarkana, Arkansas, on Aug. 12, 1933, and began racing at 17 in California, according to the Star. Since racing at that age in California was illegal, Jones needed an alias to hide his identity. He came up with “Parnelli” with the help of a friend, the newspaper reported.

“When I was a kid, there was a freckle-faced girl at school named Nellie who my friend, Billy Calder, teased me about,” Jones told Southbay Magazine in 2013. “He would yell, ‘Nellie loves Parnelli! Nellie loves Parnelli!’ That was the name that I thought of when I got the fake I.D.”

Jones was once asked if there had ever been a better driver than him.

“I don’t think so,” he told Car and Driver magazine in 2013. “You can teach somebody how to drive, but you can’t teach them that will and desire and kick-butt attitude.”

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