Special to the Tribune-Star
Whenever the conversation turns to memorable drivers of the Indy 500, the name Parnelli Jones invariably comes up. What’s interesting is that he did not have the long historical career at Indianapolis like a Foyt, an Unser or an Andretti, but he made his mark in Speedway history and in the hearts and minds of fans.
In the seven times that Jones raced at Indy, he recorded two pole positions and one win in 1963 and was the first driver to break the 150-mph barrier, but it was what he almost did that is probably the most unforgettable.
In 1967 during tire testing, car owner Andy Granatelli asked Jones to take a ride in the Novi. Jones did and went faster than anyone, but Jones didn’t want to drive the Novi because he felt it had reliability issues. One day, Granatelli called him to come over and look at something he had been building.
Designed by Ken Wallis, Granatelli unveiled to Jones the STP Paxton Turbocar. It had a Pratt-Whitney ST6 turbine helicopter engine on the left side of the car with reportedly 550 horsepower. It also featured a moveable spoiler behind the cockpit to use as an air brake.
Jones told Granatelli he was testing his own car in Phoenix in March of that year and to bring the turbine there. “I went over there and run it. It kind of had a three-second throttle delay and you kind of had to outguess it. I ran almost as quick as I did with my own car.”
Jones left Phoenix undecided about the turbine car, but began to use financial reasoning. He asked myself, “Would you do it for $25,000?” No was his answer. “Would you do it for $50,000?” No, he answered himself. “Would you do for $100,000?”
“I said, ‘well $100,000, I might drive it.’ Andy paid me $100,000 to drive it,” Jones said later.
“I didn’t realize it was going to be as good as it was,” Jones said. “In the seven years I’d been coming here, I was always in the first two rows. I was sixth that year.”
Jones went on to say that many accused him of sandbagging with the car. “The car accelerated really well across the short straights and onto the long straights, but about halfway down the straightaway the thing would quit accelerating.” By changing the gear ratio, the car would have run faster down the straights but not as fast in lap time, so they chose to run the gear that allowed the car to be faster in lap time.
Jones led all but 25 of 196 laps, when a $6 broken rear bearing cost him his second Indy 500 victory. “I criticized myself for the way I drove the car. If I had just taken it a little bit easier out of the pits, the bearing in the rear that let go would have certainly held together. It was a shame. I certainly had a lot of desire and will to win races, but in a lot cases I was a little too aggressive,” he said.
The turbine car, innovative in so many ways, caused quite a stir that year at the track. It was nicknamed “Silent Sam” and “The Whooshmobile” because of the noise or lack of noise coming from the car. Most said it sounded like a vacuum cleaner. Even prior to the race that year, some car owners lobbied the United States Auto Club — the sanctioning body at the time — to ban the car.
The following year, despite the fact that the Granatelli turbine was built within the guidelines of the rules, many car owners complained again, afraid of being forced to buy the turbine to be competitive. A new rule by USAC limited the amount of air intake into the engine from 23.999 inches to 15.999, basically making the turbine car obsolete.
Despite the fact that Jones retired from IndyCar racing that year as a driver, he formed a team with sponsor Vel Miletich. Al Unser Sr. won back-to-back Indy 500s racing for Jones. In fact, in just 41 races, Jones’ team won 22 races and three straight championship titles.