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Fans Remember Parnelli Jones as a Risk-Taking Driver. He Was a Winning Indy Car Owner, Too.
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By Dean Kirkland
Published 5 days ago on
June 7, 2024
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(Special to GV Wire)

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This week, we lost Parnelli Jones at the age of 90. A friend, mentor, and giant in the world of racing, Parnelli’s impact on my career was immeasurable.

Working with him on the book “The Cars of Val Miletich and Parnelli Jones,” traveling to Indy twice, and making the unforgettable trip to the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2011 — these moments are etched in my memory. He was one of a kind, and God doesn’t make ’em like him anymore.

In honor of Parnelli, let’s dive into one of his favorite cars, the legendary Johnny Lightning #2, which looked like it was built by Zeus himself.

Dean Kirkland Portrait

Dean Kirkland

Central Octane

“My partner, Vel, and I won the Indianapolis 500 with that particular car with Al Unser driving in 1970, and we led 190 of the 200 actual laps,” Parnelli reminisced.

Just let that sink in – leading 190 out of 200 laps. That’s like leading the whole Tour de France while riding a unicycle.

As Unser’s Johnny Lightning rolls onto the track, the TV announcer’s voice booms: “To win the pole, all he has to do is keep on doing what he’s been doing.”

Parnelli and Vel Miletich had put together a team that was simply unstoppable. They were on the pole with an average speed of 170 mph, dominating the race from start to finish. The checkered flag came down on Unser with a speed of 170.221. The field was filled with the best drivers of the time, but none could keep up with the Johnny Lightning.

The legacy of the Johnny Lightning #2, like Jones himself, is etched in racing history. We’ll miss you, Parnelli. God doesn’t make ‘em like you anymore.

Jim Dilamarter, a pivotal figure in this story, chimed in: “That car was a derivative of a 1968 four-wheel drive Lola. It was designed by Eric Broadley, a very famous race car designer. It was brought over by George Bignotti, who I worked for at the time.”

George Bignotti wasn’t just any engineer — he was the mastermind behind A.J. Foyt’s 1961 Indy 500 winner. This car had pedigree, and it showed.

Bignotti himself added, “Vel and Parnelli came in and talked to Al. They made a deal for him to drive Parnelli Jones’ racing team, and so I was next in line. They came to me. I didn’t want to lose Al. Parnelli and Vel were pretty smart. We made a deal and sold them my car.”

That’s right, the car that won Indy was a clever acquisition, spruced up and perfected by Parnelli and Vel’s tweaks.

The Johnny LIghtning No. 2 Indy 500 Winning Car
Driver Al Unser, left, and car owner Parnelli Jones formed an Indy winning-winning team with the Johnny Lightning No. 2 car. (Special to GV Wire)

“When we took it over, we kind of picked up a lot of the design, the same, and added some of our flavor to the car,” Parnelli noted. And what a flavor it was – in 1969, they figured out all the chassis problems, turning the car into a true powerhouse.

Dilamarter continued, “In 1969, we had finally figured out all our chassis problems and what were the weaknesses and so on and so forth, and the car really came alive. We won several races with that car.” The speed climbed effortlessly to 171.3 miles per hour. Ironically, it was Joe Leonard, Parnelli’s teammate, whose record of 171.9 he sought to break, established in a turbine car in 1968.

“Also in that year, we built another Johnny Lightning car, number 15, for Joe Leonard to drive because he was contracted to drive the two 500s that year. Even though Joe was extremely competitive in the 1970 Indy 500, he made a slight mistake in the fact that he accidentally cut the ignition switch off but didn’t realize it and fell out of the race,” Dilamarter explained.

Imagine that – hitting the switch by mistake and costing yourself the race. Talk about a gut punch.

Bignotti filled in the details: “He had these big racing gloves on, and it hit the switch and killed the engine, and he didn’t know that he had hit the switch.” After realizing the issue, Vel and Parnelli felt so bad for Joe that they let him race at the Milwaukee 150 the next weekend, where he redeemed himself by winning the race.

The TV announcer’s voice resonated with pride as Unser moved to the front: “First, Johnny Rutherford moved to the front, but only for a moment. Al Unser takes command.”

Said Miletich: “The only time we didn’t lead is when we were in the pits.”

(Special to GV Wire)

Unser, a man who knew what it was like to be a race car driver, didn’t let you lack for anything on the car. Vel was a neat gentleman and a great car owner who loved to win. He was described as a big gentleman with a heart to match his size.

“I’ll tell you, it’s just as much fun winning as a car owner as it is a driver.” — Parnelli Jones

Dusan Miletich, Vel’s son, said, “My dad loved Al Unser because he was easy on the cars. … Sometimes you get ugly cars that win, but in this case, we got a very beautiful one that won. That car was the first car that they built from scratch, and it won the national championship, and it won the Indy 500.”

Parnelli Jones summed it up: “We put together a good combination and really was very dominant.”

Dusan Miletich remarked, “Sometimes you get ugly cars that win, but in this case, we got a very beautiful one that won. That car was the first car that they built from scratch, and it won the national championship, and it won the Indy 500.”

At the 1970 Indy 500, Unser was overwhelmed, “I really don’t know if it’s really true yet or not. I’m so excited right now that I think it’ll probably take me two or three days to really get a hold of myself. Parnelli and my wife keep telling me that I’ve won it, so maybe I can get over it.”

The announcer acknowledged Jones, too: “Sitting next to Wanda is the last man able to win the pole on the race on the same day, owner of the car, Parnelli Jones. Congratulations again.”

Parnelli talked about that glorious day with his signature humility.

“I’ll tell you, it’s just as much fun winning as a car owner as it is a driver. That being my first win as a car owner, certainly we come back in ’71 and won as well. That being our first win really made an impression and made me love that particular car.”

The legacy of the Johnny Lightning #2, like Jones himself, is etched in racing history. We’ll miss you, Parnelli. God doesn’t make ‘em like you anymore.

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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