For a while, when the Indianapolis 500 was as iconically American as stars and stripes and apple pie, its rock star was a California guy named Parnelli Jones.
He symbolized his generation's need for speed. He sat on the pole at Indy and in our frontal lobe of sports heroes. He was 1960s cool. Buzz haircut, cowboy hat, heavy foot. He was handsome, fearless and fast in a car at a time when that made legends. Grease under the fingernails helped too.
It will bother the pre-baby boomers that Jones will turn 80 in August. It will also fascinate them to know that, at times, he is still that rock star. Sunday is the 50th anniversary of Jones' 1963 victory at Indy. Indy has made many wrong turns along the way since, in areas of leadership and marketing, but it deserves credit for celebrating its past.
Saturday morning at the Brickyard, Jones will climb into his famous No. 98 roadster.
"It'll be like putting on an old glove," Jones says.
He will lead 33 cars in the traditional 11 rows of three, the others also '60s roadsters, preserved for times like this. Jones' No. 98 has been in the racing museum at Indy but remains basically the same car he drove across the bricks the winner on May 30, 1963.
This will be ceremonial. Fifty years ago, it was real, 500 miles of speed, endurance, blood and guts. Also controversy.
Late in the race, Jones' car, in the lead, leaked oil and prompted demands he be black-flagged (ordered into the pits).
"There were lots of cars leaking the whole race," Jones says now. "Mine sealed, and I ran the fastest all day on one of my last laps."
Jones was allowed to keep running. When he won, his time was the first-ever finish under 3 1/2 hours, 3:29.35.40.
The next day, at the victory banquet, another driving legend, Eddie Sachs, congratulated Jones and said he should have been disqualified. Sachs claimed he spun in Jones' oil. Jones responded that there had been lots of oil, not just his. They argued. Sachs told Jones to take the first punch. Jones did. Sachs left and returned with his own version of a bandage for his punched mouth — a black-flag handkerchief.
The press loved it. So did Jones.
"He was great for our sport," Jones says now. "He was a talker like Muhammad Ali."
The next year, Jones was on the backstretch on his second lap when he saw the yellow flag come out and looked left.
"It looked like the entire grandstand was on fire," he says. "If there had been an exit on turn 3, I would have taken it."
Dave MacDonald, driving an ill-handling car, had crashed, and his car exploded. Sachs crashed into MacDonald. Sachs died from the impact, MacDonald from burns.
Some fifty laps later, Jones pitted, headed back out to race and saw other crews waving at him to stop. He was on fire.
"I eased the car into the infield and bailed out," he says.
That incident, in which Jones suffered serious but not life-threatening burns, was his worst racing accident. . Jones had good fortune and common sense. He ran at Indy seven years, never started farther back than sixth, finished second in '65 and sixth in his last race in '67 when a bearing broke on his STP Turbine and led 492 of the 1,130 laps he raced at Indy.
"I never really retired," he says. "I just started getting into cars with roll bars."