The name on his birth document says Rufus Parnell Jones. The name in all those auto racing Halls of Fame just says “Parnelli.”
Well, it probably says “Jones,” too. But it wouldn’t have to.
The legendary Parnelli Jones is back in Las Vegas, to serve as grand marshal for the reincarnation of the Mint 400, the great American off-road race. Or as the also legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson called it in 1971, a great place to fear and loathe and get totally snockered on rum and mescaline.
Jones, the winner of the 1963 Indy 500 and just about every other auto race in which he drove, was among the entrants in the inaugural Mint 400 in 1968. He did not win that year. (He won in 1973; he also won the Baja 500 that year.) But he won his bet with car builder Bill Stroppe, who had needled him about not being tough enough to drive the Nevada desert.
He was tough enough.
His Ford Bronco wasn’t.
Jones hit a dry wash at full song and ripped the wheels right off that Bronco, and blew out all the tires.
“I cauliflowered the rims,” he said as the off-road cars and trucks that will run in Saturday’s race — the staging area is south of town near the Jean exit off Interstate 15 — lined up for a procession down the Strip. “They had to take a torch to it.”
But then he began to carry a torch for off-road racing.
He would come back year after year in that iconic Bronco painted up like a can of Olympia beer. In 1971, he came back with a co-driver named Al Unser, who had just won his second consecutive Indy 500 driving for Jones.
That was the Mint 400 where Hunter S. Thompson showed up snockered to the gills, the one in which Vanna White and Lynda Carter were trophy girls.
Jones and Big Al Unser didn’t get to kiss those two. They wound up in a ditch again. Or close to one. So the next day, they jumped in Bobby Unser’s car. They flipped that one.
Gonzo auto racing.
“The funny thing was Al had this experimental driving suit; it was some kind of (space-age) material, and after the race he got out, and it all fell off of him. He was standing there in his shorts,” Parnelli said, retelling one of a hundred stories, or a thousand.
Parnelli Jones is 80 now, but he doesn’t look it; he said he weighs only a few more pounds now than when he became the first man to break through the 150-mph barrier at Indy in 1962, and the next-to-last man to win the great 500-mile race in a front-engined roadster the next year, famous No. 98, affectionately known as “Ol’ Calhoun.”
Me and Mr. Jones were standing in the back parking lot of Circus Circus, by the Adventuredome, along with Mint 400 founders Mel Larson, Norm Johnson and K.J. Howe. Mr. Jones said this new breed of off-road racers have a thing going on, what with their high-falutin’ shock absorbers and their giant tires and their two-way radios and all the other technical advancements that keep them out of the bottom of washes and ditches on race day.
I asked him how his fellow legend A.J. Foyt would have done in the off-road deserts. “Oh, he would have caught on. He probably would have loved it.”
What about those British Invasion guys, the great Formula One champions Jim Clark and Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart, with their calm demeanors and genteel driving styles and their pencil-thin mustaches?
“I don’t know,” Jones said with a chuckle. “They weren’t used to getting themselves too dirty.”
I talked to the man who owned the high-performance Ford Raptor that Jones would drive in the Mint 400 parade. It had all the bells and whistles, and a giant roll bar and an expensive paint job.
I thought about telling him that I had spoken to the grand marshal, and that the great Parnelli Jones said he wasn’t too old to still drive one of these things.
And that perhaps he should have Parnelli sign something that said he agreed to bring back that Raptor on all four wheels.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.