SCORE Journal

SCORE Journal - April 2018

SCORE Journal - The Official Publication of SCORE Off-Road Racing

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Page 68 of 102

Parnelli Jones Racing BaJa By Dan Sanchez When the news of the first Baja 1000 race spread across the motorsports community, the thrill of a new challenge attracted many road racers, including Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones. At the time, off-road racing was new territory and Jones was, at first, hesitant to compete. “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.” In the late 60’s Jones had participated in some dirt-track racing on ovals, but never in Baja. “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. “My first race was the ‘1000 and I showed up with the Bronco that had four-wheel drive,” said Jones. “I made it just passed Santa Ynez and that was about it. I tore the front end nearly clear out of the vehicle. I could see right away that I was too oriented to running too hard. But it’s hard to back off when most of the races you’re used to are running at 100 percent.” Stroppe was also running other Ford Broncos and pickup trucks with Larry Minor when Jones began to become more involved in racing the Baja 1000. “We had so much fun pre-running those races,” said Jones. “It became a really fun thing. I enjoyed that more so than the race itself.” During this time, Jones knew that Ford was pondering building a two-wheel drive Bronco. “Stroppe built the prototype with an I-beam suspension and sent it back to Detroit,” said Jones. “Ford ultimately didn’t’ want to do it. When I saw that prototype, I told them that’s what I wanted for an off-road vehicle.” Jones got his opportunity to drive the two-wheel drive Bronco at the 1970 Baja 500. It was only the second year of the race and Jones didn’t even pre-run it. “We went out in this new Bronco and won the race,” said Jones. “After that, I wanted Stroppe to build me a specialized vehicle that would become ‘Big Oly’. I wanted to win and beat the motorcycles.” 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.” That race was won by Drino Miller and Vic Wilson in a Funco VW. Jones recalls how he chased down Miller and was tricked by his team that ultimately cost him the race, but was a lesson well learned. “Drino Miller drove by us after we stopped at a pit near Santa Ynez,” said Jones. “I took off after him and was looking for his dust. He had a pre-runner that looked like his race car so his pit crew drove the pre-runner down some other road. I followed it and got off the course. I found out later that at one point, we were so far ahead, it helped me think about how well we could do in other races.” The experience allowed Jones to win the 1970 Baja 500, the 1971 and 1972 Baja 1000, and the 1973 Baja 500. 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.” Jones admits that his Baja wins were a direct result of Bill Stroppe’s presence in the vehicle. “Stroppe was always tapping me on the knee, telling me to slow down. Looking back, I was fortunate enough to have him do that so often, but it would frustrate me. One time we had a brake problem and we had to stop and fix it. He told me I was too tough on the brakes,” said Jones. “I was tired of hearing him say that so I almost drove off without him. In the end, I am glad he was so kind and such a good friend.” Compared to his road racing career, Jones felt a freedom racing in Baja, something he really enjoyed. “It felt natural to me,” said Jones. “When I was racing in Baja, I was doing it for me, and I was having fun doing it.” In the process, Jones brought many legendary racers into off-road motorsports, including Walker Evans and Ivan Stewart. “Walker Evans was a tremendous off-road racer who knew how to go very fast and knew how to keep the car together,” said Jones. “Ivan Stewart was also very knowledgeable and had a lot of talent. Being with them, and having a good time pre-running was probably the most fun I had ever had. 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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