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Next there was J. C. Agajanian, a forthright Armenian and a respected USAC car owner and race promoter. Jones, despite his self-confidence when he was within arm's reach of a steering wheel, was too shy to introduce himself to Agajanian, but a formal introduction wasn't necessary; Agajanian could easily see that Parnelli had INDY MATERIAL stamped on his soul, and it was he who eventually sent Jones to Indy behind the wheel of Ol' Calhoun.
Agajanian was more than Jones' car owner. One day he said, "Parnelli, you don't need all this prize money you're earning; let me invest it for you." Those are words that are usually accompanied by knocking the ash off a fat cigar with a beringed finger and a twist on the end of a mustache. And even if Agajanian has the cigar and the rings and the mustache, he is no con artist, which is not to say he is anything less than shrewd. Coming from Agajanian, the offer was safe, even with nothing more binding than promises, and it proved very profitable to Jones.
Agajanian tried to persuade Jones to drive Ol' Calhoun at Indy in 1960, its maiden year, but Jones didn't feel he was ready. The ride was given to another rookie, Lloyd Ruby, who started 12th and finished seventh. Just as Jones would decide on his own when to quit Indy, the decision when to start was his alone, and his rejection of Agajanian's offer had come as a surprise. In a practice session in 1960, Parnelli had already appeared to prove his worth—in fact, he had been flagged off the track for going too fast. Jones later became Firestone's favorite test driver, not only because walls did not intimidate him. but also because he had a rare gift that enabled him to recall a car's response to virtually every crack and ripple in a track's surface. This remarkable memory still contributes to his skill as an off-road racer. It is said he can bounce the length of Baja and remember every rock and cactus and puckerbush and sand wash and gulley and armadillo on the road.
When Jones did tackle Indy the next year he was more than ready, and soon discovered that it was possible to actually slide a car through the turns. It was subtle and tricky to be sure; still, Jones became a master of the four-wheel drift at Indianapolis. There are many who argue that Parnelli's skill at the Brickyard is unsurpassed by anyone, including three-time winner A. J. Foyt.
That 1961 race was the first of Foyt's victories. The rivalry between Jones and Foyt—P.J. and A.J.—became the most celebrated in American motor racing. In 1965, with Ford Motor Company embarking on what would be a multimillion-dollar effort to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans and simultaneously weighing the possibility of going Formula I racing, Foyt and Jones were called separately to the company's corporate headquarters to talk about joining the team.
"They asked who was a better driver, me or A.J.," recalls Jones, "and I was trying to be modest, so I said, 'Well, I guess I'd have to say A.J.; he's got me in the record books.' I knew they would ask A.J. the same question, and I could picture him standing up and telling them, 'I'm the greatest.' "
After Jones won Indy in 1963 he invested in a Torrance auto dealership owned by Vei Miletich, a man who has been at Jones' side even longer than Agajanian. This deal provided Jones with space to open a Firestone racing tire distributorship as well as someone to oversee it while he was off racing.
But Jones is not just a front man whose business responsibilities consist of letting his name be hyphenated with someone else's on a billboard. For example, he foresaw the fat-tire trend, and ordered all of Firestone's obsolete Indy racing tires, which the company was more than willing—downright overjoyed—to unload. The people at Firestone thought Jones was crazy until they saw the high school kids forming lines outside Jones' door to get the tires for their '55 Chevys.
Today Jones and Miletich are the controlling partners in Parnelli Jones Enterprises, which owns seven Firestone retail stores in the Los Angeles area and distributes racing tires in 11 Western states. Miletich playfully refers to Jones as the company's recreation director because Jones spends most of his time puttering around the shop. Parnelli is not out of place surrounded by cork walls and couches, but he usually fidgets his way through business conferences, playing with gadgets on the desk. It's not that he's uncomfortable, he's just bored. If Jones could have his way, he would tinker with his Blazer until it was time to make a decision, then come in the office and make it. Indecisiveness has never been one of Jones' problems, and his business talent is for cutting through the fog and settling things. Sometimes the decision can be rough, like this year's, when no sponsor could be found to field a Formula I Parnelli for Mario Andretti. What had been a promising effort was cut short by Jones, and Andretti was released from his USAC commitments to the Vel's-Parnelli team as well.