Spinning the Big Wheel

Parnelli Jones was considered one of the “Big Wheels” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had arrived on the scene in 1961 and shared Rookie of the Year honors with Bobby Marshman after an inspired performance. In 1962 he broke the 150 mph barrier, qualifying J.C. Agajanian’s roadster in the pole position and forfeited a commanding lead after losing his brakes. In only his third start, Jones again captured the pole and went on to win the 500 stopping the foreign invasion (Team Lotus) dead in their tracks.

In what would turn out to be his final Memorial Day classic (1967), Jones was again the man to beat. His assigned steed was Andy Granatelli’s Turbo Car, the most technically advanced racecar to ever appear at Indianapolis. Legal to the letter but extremely controversial, Jones’ turbine powered, four wheel drive rocket ship was a dark horse. There had simply been no precedent. Turbines had always been eligible, but no one had ever qualified one. Adding to the mystique, Granatelli, Jones and everyone else involved with the race car, shrugged when asked about its capability. Their qualifying time was nothing spectacular but some found their ambivalence suspect…Perhaps they were saving what they knew until race day?

At the drop of the green flag, Jones laid his hand on the table. He chased the first two rows of qualifiers into turn one drifting high and powered around them. In the short chute he crisscrossed the track and devoured the leader Mario Andretti as they entered turn two. By the time he reached the start/finish line, Jones was already leading by a country mile and pulling away. At fifteen laps the Turbine was twelve seconds ahead of second place. Then at eighteen laps, it began to rain.

The 500 was postponed until the following day but when racing resumed, Jones’ domination continued.

Meanwhile after starting back in the twenty sixth position, a rookie from the NASCAR ranks was experiencing his first Indy car race. Lee Roy Yarbrough was well known down in Florida but here at the Brickyard, he was just another neophyte. He had a year old Vollstedt Ford to drive for seatbelt magnate Jim Robbins. It was a competitive car but Yarbrough spun in the opening laps and by now was just trying to keep pace with the field.

On the fifty second lap Jones swooped in on Yarbrough to put him yet another lap down. “My car runs so quiet, the other drivers can’t hear me coming,” Jones explained later. Nor could Yarbrough see him, evidently. Even if he could, he wouldn’t have been expecting the leader to dive underneath him (left wheels under the line) going into the turn. The racers touched wheels and began a graceful pirouette into the infield. The Turbine T-boned the Vollstedt briefly, then they slid together and separated. Amazingly, neither car was disabled, and both contestants were able to continue after a pit stop to change out their flat spotted tires.

Jones claimed that after the initial contact, the cars never touched again but photographs show damage to body panels on both racers after the incident. Was the damage merely cosmetic? We’ll never know.

The balance of Jones’ race is well documented. He continued to ride roughshod over the field until four laps from the finish when a six dollar bearing in the gearbox failed. Yarbrough soldiered on until he was involved in second incident, this time trying to avoid a spinning car. The crumpled Vollstedt was abandon in the infield with a total of eighty seven laps scored.

In Bill Libby’s biography “Parnelli” the incident was blamed entirely on Yarbrough but examination of the film tells a very different story. For his part, Jones never accepted any responsibility-then again, why would he? When you are a former 500 champion and a respected veteran, you think about your legacy. With everyone willing to point a finger at Yarbrough, it was prudent for Jones to keep his mouth shut.

Posted in Uncategorized.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *