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Parnelli Jones’ Big Oly A legendary racer and vehicle have a deep history in BaJa racing By Dan Sanchez It was quite a sensation when the legendary off-road racing vehicle named Big Oly, went through the Mecum auction block and sold for a total of $1.87 million. Parnelli Jones and his son PJ were watching in anticipation, as were millions of off-road racing fans who have followed Baja racing over the decades. Big Oly has a rich history, that began with Indy 500 race winner Parnelli Jones, and Ford race car builder and team owner Bill Stroppe. At the time, off-road racing was new territory and Jones was, at first, hesitant to compete in some of the Baja 1000 events he had heard so much about. “Bill Stroppe was already involved in off-road racing,” says Jones. “I won the stock car championship in USAC for Stroppe in a Mercury. We were at a party and he asked me to come and do the Baja 1000. I told him that I didn’t think I was capable of doing it. Stroppe told me that I probably wasn’t man enough to handle it anyway. That was like throwing a red flag, and I told him to get that sucker ready!” Jones was referring to the Ford Broncos that Stroppe had built to tackle the Baja 1000 race in 1967, of which he would later rip the front-end out of during a race after pushing the vehicle too hard. With Jones already “hooked” in racing Baja, he wanted a two-wheel drive Bronco to race in. Stroppe built a prototype with a twin I-beam suspension, but Ford passed on the design. Jones took the prototype and raced in the 1970 Baja 500 and won. “After that, I wanted Stroppe to build me a specialized vehicle that would become ‘Big Oly’. I wanted to win and beat the motorcycles,” said Jones. According to Jones, Stroppe didn’t want to build a custom vehicle, so he asked Dick Russell, one of Stroppe’s fabricators at the time, to build the vehicle for him. “We started making some drawings and he started building it at home,” said Jones. “It incorporated the ideas that I came up with. At the Indianapolis 500, I mentioned the custom truck to Mickey Thompson and Stroppe heard about it. He got angry and ultimately he said to bring it to the shop and they finished the vehicle.” The Bronco, known today as Big Oly, is a tube chassis vehicle with fiberglass Bronco body parts. “We put trailing arms in the front end and added a fiberglass body. It also had to have a top on it so I figured we might as well put a wing on it. It’s what ended up giving the truck its personality,” said Jones. “It also had lights that popped out of the wing.” The Bronco was one of the most innovative vehicles of its time, making it one of the legendary vehicles of Baja and off-road racing. “On one of our Indy cars, we had a curtain at the front of the windshield. It would direct the airflow up and over your head,” said Jones. “We put that in the Bronco and it worked somewhat. There were a lot of innovative things we did to it. It was so dominant. We ran it in the Baja 1000 (1970). We should have won that race hands down, but I drove it over my head.” Jones went on to win the 1970 Baja 500, the 1971 and 1972 Baja 1000, and the 1973 Baja 500 in Big Oly. Much of that he attributes to Bill Stroppe, who would remind him to slow down to make the vehicle last the entire length of the race. “Stroppe would always pound on me to slow down,” said Jones. “It was one of the reasons why we built Big Oly pretty tough, simply because I would run it so rough. I’ve never been a very smart racer. I know how to go fast. I just didn’t know how to go long enough. For me, racing in Baja ended up being more of a personal thing and I’ll never forget it. It’s become a major event and both the Baja 500 and Baja 1000 have played a part in my career. My only complaint is that I wish I could have won more races!” SJ

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