Almost 50 years after winning the Indianapolis 500, Parnelli Jones was presented a “Baby Borg” by the 2012 winner, Dario Franchitti, in a ceremony in Detroit yesterday evening.
For the past 25 years, BorgWarner has presented the latest winner of the “500” with an 18-inch replica of the four-foot BorgWarner Trophy which commemorates all the winners with a relief of their face. Jones, who expected to be aiding BorgWarner in presenting Franchitti with a trophy, was overwhelmed to receive one in return, having been kept in the dark about the plan hatched by former IndyCar PR man Steve Shunck, Tim Manganello, chairman and CEO of BorgWarner, and Franchitti.
“Parnelli's achievements at the Indianapolis 500 are legendary,” said Manganello. “In 1961, he was named Rookie of the Year, a year later he was the first to lap at more than 150mph, and in 1963, he earned his place in history on the prestigious BorgWarner Trophy. We are extremely pleased to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Parnelli's Indianapolis 500 victory by presenting him with a personal symbol of his achievement, a Baby Borg.
"For many years, I have had the honor of presenting the BorgWarner Trophy to champion drivers in Victory Lane. Dario and Parnelli will tell you that the thrill of winning the greatest race in the world is beyond description. Looking at all of the faces and names on the Borg-Warner Trophy, you realize you've joined a very elite group of champions, representing a century-long tradition of achievement. Their drive to win inspires new generations to accelerate automotive innovation and push themselves to outperform the competition, even if the records they break are their own."
Jones, who scored the penultimate Indy win for the front-engined roadsters after holding off Jimmy Clark's rear-engined Lotus in the closing stages of the '63 race, is also the oldest living Indy winner. He said: “This award came as a complete surprise. When Steve told me they wanted me in Detroit for the traditional presentation of the “Baby Borg” to the latest Indy 500 winner, I assumed that's what it was – I was presenting Dario with his trophy and I'd been chosen because it was the 50th anniversary of my win. So for Dario to turn around and present me with one was a great honor.
“Back when I won (BELOW), we just got a plaque, quite a small one, and I'd had some conversations about the “Baby Borg” in the past because it's a tremendous trophy to have, and so I had offered to buy one! For BorgWarner to do this and in this way is just wonderful.”
After the ceremony, Jones told RACER that, given some of his near-misses at Indy both before and after the '63 victory, it makes it even more significant to have his name and face on the BorgWarner trophy – and to now have a smaller replica of it. He also said that he'd been confident that his car, J.C. Agajanian's Willard Battery Special, the Watson-Offy nicknamed “Ol' Calhoun”, was a potential winner…if he could get it to the finish.
“We made improvements to it each year,” said Jones. “We were fast in my rookie year, 1961, and even led the race for a time until the engine went sick. And then in '62, we were dominant but we lost the brakes. For '63, we had a new oil tank which split and got us in trouble [its leaking caused some to suggest Jones should be black-flagged to have it repaired]. Jimmy Clark's Lotus obviously had a superior chassis with a lower center of gravity, so it was kinder on the tires. All we had in our favor was power, so frankly, I was surprised that we were able to beat him. But I was confident we were quicker than the other cars similar to us though, the other roadsters.”
A year later, Jones was leading again when the car caught fire leaving the pits, and by 1965, he was in a rear-engined car, a Kuzma Lotus – a transition he made with ease.
“I'd driven so many different types of car before I'd ever gotten to the Speedway in '61,” he stated, “and I guess I had a lot of self-confidence, a lot of desire, a lot of will to win. Put it another way: I couldn't stand to lose!”
The failure of Jones' STP Paxton Turbocar, the turbine-engined “Silent Sam,” with just three laps to go of the '67 “500,” is part of Indy folklore, but that race was also significant for another reason: it was to be Jones' last race at Indy.
He said: “After that race, I spent a lot of 1967 wondering about something that I was thinking during that race – that winning it wouldn't be as exciting as the first time. So what was I doing? I had gotten married and was starting a family, and didn't want to be sacrificing time that could be spent with them. Although I told the guy who replaced me at Andy Granatelli's team in '68, Joe Leonard, ‘If I'd never won the race, you couldn't keep me out of that car!'
“But I got some satisfaction from doing the chassis setup work on that Lotus with the turbine engine, and Joe went and got pole. He'd have won, too, but Andy had made a deal to run gasoline instead of jet fuel, and that froze up the pump when the race went yellow with 10 laps to go.”
Jones didn't quit all types of racing, though, but with age, came a cage. “I'd just decided that I didn't want to run open-cockpit cars,” he said. “I wanted a rollcage over my head. But I was only 35 and was still a guy who liked to see what was on the other side of the hill, so I did some different types of racing.”
Jones won the 1970 SCCA Trans-Am championship in a Ford Mustang and became a star of off-road racing, winning the Baja 1000 twice. “That was a recreational-type part of the sport, and it was also a chance to be creative. The Ford Bronco we built, “Old Oly,” was a strong and dominant truck. Actually, it's on loan to the IMS Hall of Fame museum at the moment.”
But Rufus Parnell Jones will always remain inextricably linked with Indy car racing, a position cemented by becoming a successful team owner. Al Unser guided Jones' Johnny Lightning Colt-Ford to Victory Lane in '70 and '71. “That gave me a tremendous feeling, of course,” recalled Jones, “but it's not quite the same as driving. The adrenaline isn't pumping quite so much; it's more a feeling of relief.”
Franchitti (with team owner Chip Ganassi, RIGHT), who drove the Target Chip Ganassi Racing car to his third “500” win last May, stated: “I am very honored to be receiving my third Baby Borg this year. Those take front and center among all my trophies. Back in September, Parnelli mentioned to me and some friends about somehow, in some way, getting a Baby Borg for his trophy collection. They were not given to Indy 500 winners until Rick Mears' win in 1988.
“So I think that it is amazing for BorgWarner to commemorate Parnelli's win from 1963 with a Baby Borg of his very own. It was so neat to see our plan coming together. Winning the Indianapolis 500 is a great honor and I am thrilled to see Parnelli get a "retro" Baby Borg 50 years later to remember his win in a very special way.”
And, as a former team owner, how would Jones rate Franchitti among Indy's greats?
“Dario is a class act,” commented Jones promptly. “He's fast but has a lot of finesse, he's very smooth, and obviously knows how to win, just like Al Unser and Rick Mears. They knew how to get to the finish. They weren't rough on their equipment like myself, Mario [Andretti] or Bobby Unser; we knew how to go fast but not always how to do it for long enough!
"Al Unser, after those two wins in '70 and '71…well, when we pulled the Colt apart after the race and looked at all the components and the engine, I think we could have put it back together again and run it for another 500 miles without problem. He was so gentle on a car – but fast, too. And I see Dario very much in that same way: I'm not surprised he's won Indy three times. Very deserving.”
• Parnelli Jones' new autobiography, written with Bones Bourcier and published by Coastal 181, is entitled As A Matter Of Fact, I Am Parnelli Jones” and can be purchased here: http://www.coastal181.com/nlm-working-April-2005/openwheel-1.htm#_matter