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Get Ready for the Indy 500 With This Look at Parnelli Jones, JC Agajanian & the Willard Battery Special
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By Dean Kirkland
Published 3 weeks ago on
May 24, 2024
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(GV Wire Composite/Dean Kirkland)

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If the 1960 Watson Roadster were a rock star, it would be the Mick Jagger of race cars — charismatic, daring, and absolutely unforgettable.

A few years back, I had the distinct pleasure of working on a book and documentary with the legend himself, Parnelli Jones, to discuss his illustrious car collection. We spent a good chunk of time reminiscing about Ol’ Calhoun, the 1960 Watson Roadster — the Willard Battery Special. Buckle up, because this ride through history is going to be as thrilling as the Indy 500 itself.

Dean Kirkland Portrait

Dean Kirkland

Central Octane

Let’s roll back to 1960. In the vibrant, sun-soaked car-building capital of Glendale, California, a mechanical maestro named AJ Watson was busy crafting what would become an icon in the racing world. This wasn’t just any car; it was a masterpiece of engineering and sheer chutzpah. The late, great chief mechanic Jim Dilamarter, who we sadly lost last year, often spoke about the precision and passion that went into building the Watson Roadster. It was as if Watson had sprinkled a little bit of magic into every bolt and screw.

Cary Agajanian, son of the legendary car owner J.C. Agajanian, gives us a peek behind the curtain. “The car was built in Glendale, California. That’s where the hotbed of building race cars in those days was, and AJ Watson was the person building it,” Cary explained.

These weren’t just cookie-cutter cars; they were finely-tuned beasts designed to eat up the track, with modifications inspired by none other than Parnelli Jones himself. Parnelli’s racing insights turned this car into a sleek, aerodynamic marvel, ready to take on anything the Indy 500 could throw at it.

the Willard Battery Special
Car owner J.C. Agajanian, center, driver Parnelli Jones, and the team at the Indy 500. (Special to GV Wire)

Parnelli Knew Only One Speed: Fast All the Way

Now, if you think the car is impressive, wait until you hear about Parnelli’s escapades behind the wheel. This guy was to racing what Sinatra was to singing — unmatched and effortlessly cool. He drove Ol’ Calhoun for four adrenaline-pumping years at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“It’s a beautiful car and it brings back a lot of memories. In Indianapolis, I ran that car for four years,” Parnelli said with a nostalgic glint in his eye. His rookie year? Oh, it was a spectacle. Historic footage shows Parnelli blazing through practice, nearly breaking the 150-mile-per-hour barrier. It was like watching a maestro conduct a symphony, only at 150 miles per hour.

Cary Agajanian reminisced about his father’s unique bond with Parnelli.

“Parnelli was a great talent, a young talent, a natural talent. In the old days, don’t forget that the championship title was not only on pavement like Indianapolis, it was also on dirt,” he recalled. Al Unser, another racing titan, chimed in with his admiration for Parnelli’s versatility and skill. “When you take Parnelli, I mean, he was a man that could get in anything, didn’t make any difference. When he sat in that thing, he made it go fast,” Unser said. It’s safe to say Parnelli could probably make a lawnmower win the Indy 500.

The 1963 Indianapolis 500 was Parnelli’s magnum opus. Starting from the pole position, he dominated the race with surgical precision. Historic footage and personal anecdotes bring every heart-stopping moment to life. At one point, Parnelli lost his brakes mid-race. Most drivers would’ve thrown in the towel, but not Parnelli. “He increases his lead going down the main straight and he’s way out in front at the beginning of the second lap. His pit crew signals he has a six-second lead,” the footage narrates. He drove without brakes, and still managed to keep his lead. Talk about cojones.

The No. 60 STP Lotus Turbine
Parnelli Jones would have claimed a second Indy 500 win if a $6 part hadn’t broken in his revolutionary STP Lotus Turbine race car. (Special to GV Wire)

But Parnelli Jones’ legacy isn’t just tied to Ol’ Calhoun. In the late 1960s, he teamed up with Andy Granatelli to develop the STP Turbine cars, an audacious venture that aimed to revolutionize racing with turbine engines. These futuristic machines looked like they came straight out of a sci-fi novel and had the potential to leave traditional piston engines in the dust. Parnelli piloted the STP Turbine car at the 1967 Indianapolis 500 and was leading the race by a mile — literally and figuratively — when, with just a few laps to go, a $6 bearing gave up the ghost. The car that was supposed to redefine racing was left sidelined, and Parnelli was robbed of what would have been a historic victory.

As Parnelli would later quip, “We had the future in our hands, but the past bit us in the rear.”

Jim Dilamarter, in his many discussions, highlighted the technical evolution of the Watson Roadster. Each year, it was refined and improved, making it more competitive. But let’s not sugarcoat it; racing back then was dangerous. Dusan Miletich, son of Vel Miletich, described the Watson Roadster as “the world’s largest tuning fork.” When these cars crashed, the force transferred directly to the driver — making every race a dance with danger.

Parnelli’s journey with Ol’ Calhoun was filled with highs and lows, but it was always thrilling. “I was Rookie of the Year the first year in ’61, led 27 laps, could have won the race if they hadn’t lost a cylinder. And come back in ’62, sat on the pole, the first one to run 150 miles an hour around Indy,” he recounted to me. His love for the car and the sport shone through every word.

In a fitting tribute, the documentary concludes with reflections on the car’s lasting legacy. Jim Dilamarter discussed the creation of a replica that honors the original Watson Roadster, ensuring its story continues to inspire future generations. “Overall, I believe, too, that that car was the best looking roadster ever built. No question about it in my mind,” Jim asserted.

Parnelli Jones With the No. 98 Willard Battery Special
Parnelli Jones poses for a photograph alongside a replica of the No. 98 Willard Battery Special. (Special to GV Wire)

Stay Tuned for More ‘Tales on Wheels’

“Tales On Wheels” isn’t just a documentary series; it’s a celebration of automotive history and the incredible individuals who shaped it. This debut episode brings to life the story of the 1960 Watson Roadster Willard Battery Special #98, a symbol of a golden era of racing and a testament to the enduring legacy of Parnelli Jones.

For fans of automotive history and racing enthusiasts alike, “Tales On Wheels” offers an engaging and comprehensive look at the stories behind the legends. Stay tuned for more episodes that continue to uncover the fascinating tales of the automotive world. Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that every car has a story, and every legend has a ride.

About the Author

GV Wire Producer Dean Kirkland is the founder and director of Gas and Gears, an independent film production company that has produced numerous television series and feature films, including the award-winning documentary “Racing Through The Forest” (2014).

 

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