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The affair between Jones and Ol' Calhoun was symbiotic; together they ruled the Brickyard for four years. Ol' Calhoun raced five years altogether, which is about three years longer than the competitive life of a modern Indy car. They won only in 1963. That was the controversial race in which front-engined, solid-axle Ol' Calhoun split its oil tank and laid down a slippery trail that held off Jim Clark and his slick little rear-engined Lotus-Ford. It was also the race that led to Jones' defending his and Calhoun's honor by punching the late Eddie Sachs in the nose.
Everyone knew Ol' Calhoun should have won more than once. But how do you fight things like Jones' getting smacked in the forehead with a piece of metal while leading in 1961, his rookie year (he continued, peering through goggles filling with blood that dripped over an eyebrow), or like a brake line bursting while he was leading in 1962 (he continued with no brakes, slowing Ol' Calhoun for pit stops by crashing into tires thrown in the path by his crew) or like Ol' Calhoun finally burning out—literally, in white flames—while Jones was leading in 1964, the car's final race.
Ironically, the race for which Jones is most remembered was 1967's, a year that doesn't rest easy with Ol' Calhoun. That year Parnelli led the 500 at will in the bulbous STP turbine car until a transmission bearing failed three laps before the finish. The gremlins that plagued Ol' Calhoun seemed to have transferred their affections to the turbine.
But Jones can't really complain; kind spirits have been protecting him from gremlins for most of his life. How else could he have survived his teen-age years in Torrance, Calif.? When he got his driver's license he discovered he liked his hot rod more than his English teacher, so he quit school and earned money for fresh fenders, which he used a lot of, by buying junked cars and dismantling them for scrap metal. But before he gave a car the ax, he would have a little fun with it. Young Rufus' idea of fun was to play chicken with trees. Or to wind an old car up to a clanking 30 or 40 mph before an audience of his peers, and crank the steering wheel east, which would send it teetering along on two wheels for a while before it thunked over on its side—or top. If there had been demolition derbies in those days, Rufus would have found his calling at 16.
Instead, he waited until he was 17. It was entirely predictable that he would discover jalopy racing, which was only one small step removed from deliberately destroying junkers.
For nearly five years Jones was the hot dog of the California Jalopy Association, as well as being the all-classes champion of the infield. Often his parents, although they had been divorced when he was 15, would sit together in the stands and watch their boy take on all comers. Then, the races over, Commodore Paul Jones, at various times an orange picker and shipyard worker, and his ex-wife Dovie, a nurse, would go out to the parking lot, climb into separate cars and race each other away from the track.
Parnelli was no less combative. Once, another driver got in his way during a race—which marked the man as being either very green or very bold or very dumb. Immediately after the race Jones charged after the driver on foot. When Parnelli reached the car, the man wouldn't budge from his seat, so Jones climbed over the hood, stomped onto the roof and jumped up and down until the sky fell in on the poor guy's head. Jones was young and hard and cocky and fearless, and never gave a bloody inch. He figured you could recognize a good driver by the number of dents on his fender, and his cars usually looked as if they had been beaten by a duffel bag full of bowling balls. His temerity was revealed in his race strategy: "All it takes is guts, and I'm the bravest bastard in the whole damn world."
He became a versatile one, too. He moved up to midgets and sprint cars, stock cars (where the NASCAR drivers never really accepted him) and sports cars (where they never understood him). In 1964 Jones entered his first sports car race, the L. A. Times Grand Prix at Riverside, Calif. against the likes of Dan Gurney, Bruce McLaren and Jim Clark, world-renowned Formula I drivers. Jones drove a King Cobra Ford entered by Texan Carroll Shelby. He melted a clutch in practice and missed qualifying, so he started the heat race in the last row with his clutchless Cobra's rear wheels elevated on a jack and the transmission engaged. When the flag dropped, Jones' foot was already on the floor. The crew jerked the jack away, and the Cobra snaked off in a wild wiggle. Parnelli ran off the circuit during the race, and still finished third. For the main event the crew installed a fresh clutch, and a bigger rearview mirror, at Jones' request. "I want to be able to see the looks on the faces of the guys behind me," he said.
He won by 35 seconds over Roger Penske, with another burned-out clutch. After the race the brake pedal was bent backward. "They make them sports cars kinda fragile, don't they," Jones said in Victory Circle.
Off the track Jones' instinct for survival steered him away from hangers-on who could bleed him and toward men who would help his career. First there was Omar Danielson, an auto wrecker, conveniently enough. Danielson sponsored Jones through his jalopy years and played guidance counselor-cum-father figure. He explained to Jones that if he wanted to be a champion, he would have to turn his back on whiskey and women, neither of which has ever been Jones' weakness anyhow, and stop hanging out with punks who carried tire irons stuffed in their boots, slightly more difficult to do. Danielson also claims he tagged him with the nickname "Parnelli" because it rhymed with Nellie, a particularly persistent female admirer.