Indianapolis 500 followers who go back a ways usually raise a skeptical eyebrow when they hear that erstwhile Brickyard ace Rufus Parnell Jones has taken to wearing his hair over his ears and puka shells around his neck. Why, the Parnelli Jones who wore a crew cut and cowboy hat and dangled a Camel from the corner of a grimace when he won Indy in 1963 would have snorted and snickered and nudged his cronies in the ribs at the sight. "Now ain't that just tooty-frooty," he would have said. And then the old Parnelli would have swaggered over and spit in the new Parnelli's eye.
Jones' old racing buddies like to remind him that back in those days he was tough. To this Jones growls, "Dammit, it's the fashion!" and his lips purse, his chin juts and blue sparks shoot from his eyes and singe the golden bangs carefully combed forward over the bald spot where the crew cut once stood. Down in Gasoline Alley they remember those sparks, and it is quite clear that inside the silky Nik-Nik shirt unbuttoned to the belly lives the Rufus the racing world revered a decade ago.
Today there are some creases around his eyes, the nose that was thrice broken has been straightened and there are 10 new pounds on the 42-year-old, 5'10" frame that in racing trim was as solid as an Offenhauser piston and now tips in at 180. The tacit "So whaddya gonna do about it?" that Jones once carried on the tip of his tongue may have mellowed into a simple "So what?" but the spirit is far from gone.
Jones is very much the family man today, which couldn't exactly be said of him when he was racing. Sort of, maybe, but not entirely. There was this woman named Grayce that everyone thought was Mrs. Jones because she said so and Mr. Jones didn't say not so. They separated in 1966, Jones officially married another lady and Grayce sued Jones for a divorce. To this Jones said, "You can't divorce me, Grayce, I never married you," and Grayce said, "You married me in Tijuana in 1959, Parnelli, don't you remember?" To which Jones replied, "Uh, no, Grayce, I can't say as I do." A Los Angeles Superior Court judge decided that an annulment was appropriate under the circumstances, and the relationship was legally dissolved. Grayce got a settlement.
That other lady Jones married is his attractive wife Judy, who has borne him two towheaded sons, Parnell Velco (P.J. Jr.), seven, and Peter Page, three, each as fast and fearless as his father (P.J. on hockey skates, Peter in a Go-kart). The Joneses live in Rolling Hills, Calif., an exclusive peninsular community of the sort that employs a 24-hour security guard at the entrance.
Jones is now president of Parnelli Jones Enterprises, a company which, among other smaller ventures, distributes American wheels and Firestone tires and Gabriel shocks—and, more familiarly to the public, fields a USAC team around a car called the Parnelli. This year the car will be powered by an English-made Cosworth-Ford engine, a modified Formula I V-8, and most likely will be the only Cosworth in the 500. Chances are it also will be in the front row on race day.
Jones' metamorphosis from driver to businessman was smooth, quiet and relatively painless. There were no false starts after he drove his last mile at Indy in 1967. Oh, he has glanced over his shoulder at driving a couple of times—most notably in 1970, when he went road racing and won five of 11 races to capture the SCCA Trans-Am championship for Ford's Mustang. And even today Jones enters off-road races with a highly modified Chevy Blazer, but he does it just for kicks—and a little cash money—which hasn't stopped him from being the fastest man between two cacti.
Jones never went back to try Indy that one more time. He retired from high-speed, high-risk, high-pressure driving when he felt it was time, which may have actually been before it was time. "Keep trying to race forever, and you'll end up on your nob," he said. Race drivers know that; they say it all the time. But saying it and believing it are two different things. Jones was smart enough to mean it, not simply mouth it, and disciplined enough to prove he meant it.
Such conservatism at first seems out of place from a man famous for an all-out approach to racing, an approach that made him a winner in the first place. But a man can't be a winner unless he is first a survivor, and Jones is, above all else, a survivor in a profession where survivors are scarce. When other drivers were crashing and burning, Jones was slipping through their wreckage; when other owners were giving up and going home, back to the security of their fried-chicken franchises, Jones was signing sponsors so he could field a team that was to win Indy twice (1970-71 with Al Unser driving) and the USAC championship three times (1970, Unser; 1971-72, Joe Leonard). There were setbacks, to be sure, as in 1966 when a car he campaigned called the Shrike proved to be something of a bomb for its driver-owner. But he learned, and he has changed himself enough to survive while in his soul he remains the same pugnacious Parnelli who stalked the dirt tracks throughout the '50s. He's a dinosaur of sorts, only now the dinosaur is wearing alligator shoes.
There is a fellow dinosaur in Jones' life, housed in the Speedway's new infield museum. Age hasn't withered it one whit. It's still as gorgeous as the day it was born, long and sleek and shapely, armored in pearlescent lacquer and gold leaf. A name like Agajanian Willard Battery Special just isn't right for a thing of such beauty. Watson-Offenhauser isn't much better. Even Ol' Calhoun, the sobriquet Jones gave it for no particular reason other than affection, doesn't really fit.