Parnelli

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Last updated: 27-December-2004


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• Legendary American team an F1 reject?
It may seem like an anomaly that a team such as Parnelli should find itself gracing this web site. After all, the team bore the name of an American racing legend, and was at the forefront of US motorsports in the early 1970s. They started 3rd in only their second GP, and looked set to win their sixth. Their driver was destined to become World Champion in a few years' time. But in a Eurocentric Formula One which is still dogged - perhaps justifiably - by a stereotype of American apathy, in their brief tenure and sudden withdrawal as a Grand Prix team, Parnelli did nothing but enhance that reputation.

Rufus Parnell Jones is arguably the most versatile driver in American racing history. In the 1950s, whilst still in his teens, he began dirt car racing, before progressing to stock cars. There he came into partnership with self-made businessman and ex-footballer Velco Miletich, who supplied him with Ford engines, before Miletich built sprint cars for Jones which saw 'Parnelli' dominate the West Coast sprint car scene by the end of the decade. Miletich then introduced Jones to the famous team owner J. C. Agajanian, who took Jones into big time stock car and single seater racing.

Jones won the 1964 USAC stock car title, but it was at the Indianapolis 500 that he truly made his mark. Rookie of the year in 1961, he won the Borg Warner trophy in 1963, and came within three laps of doing it again in 1967 in Andy Granatelli's revolutionary turbine car. But throughout this time Parnelli hadn't forgotten his old partner Miletich; indeed, after his Indy win he obtained a stake in Vel's Firestone and Ford outlets. And with Miletich having continued to run his own racing team as well, it was only a matter of time before Vel and Parnelli became joint team owners as well.

That came in 1969, when the two established Vel's Parnelli Jones Racing out of a base in Torrance, California. They hired experienced crew chief George Bignotti and the great Al Unser to drive their Lola T150 in the USAC open-wheeler series. But Jones himself had not stopped competing, and 1970 proved to be a watershed year for the team. Jones won the TransAm championship and also the off-road Baja 1000, Unser the USAC title and the Indy 500 in a Lola-based VPJ Colt. In 1971, Unser won back-to-back Indy 500s, while the teamís second driver, Joe Leonard, won the USAC crown.

Al Unser won the 1971 Indy 500 for Vel Miletich and Parnelli Jones. Al Unser won the 1971 Indy 500 for Vel Miletich and Parnelli Jones.
• The Parnelli VPJ4 is born a bit soft
For 1972, VPJR expanded, hiring a third driver in Mario Andretti, and a renowned designer in Maurice Philippe, who had penned the fabled Lotus 72 F1 machine. However, Philippe's efforts in designing USAC cars proved a little off the mark, with the VPJ1 and VPJ2 in 1972 and 1973 respectively proving competitive but not championship-winning, despite the talents of the great driving trio. The Englishman then drew the VPJ3 for 1974, which proved even less successful, so much so that the team resorted to Eagle chassis for much of the season.

But by this stage, Parnelli had a new project on their books. Andretti made no bones about the fact that he didn't just want to pursue his racing career in America; he wanted to launch a concerted attack on Formula One. So in 1974 he convinced Jones, Miletich and Firestone to allocate a budget for an F1 campaign although, as would become obvious over the next two years or so, Mario was the only one with any genuine interest in the effort. Philippe was called upon to create a chassis and he came up with the VPJ4, not surprisingly based on the Lotus 72.

The VPJ4 obviously ran on Firestones and was powered by the Cosworth V8, but in testing at Riverside it was clear that the car was flawed - Andretti lapped 1.5 seconds slower than his F5000 times! Understandably concerned, the team brought in another design wizard, John Barnard, whose initial reaction was to dump the machine and start from scratch. But without the time to do that, Barnard set about diagnosing and fixing the key problem - dealing with the suspension that was simply way too soft by replacing the torsion bars with a more traditional layout.

According to Andretti, that improved the VPJ4's average lap time by around 1.6s, but still it did not bode particularly well for Parnelli's scheduled Grand Prix debut at the 1974 Canadian GP at Mosport, the penultimate round of that year's World Championship. However, the red and white car with Viceroy sponsorship by no means disgraced itself. Mario qualified 16th, only 1.735s away from the pole time set by Emerson Fittipaldi, and finished the race a lap behind in 7th, only one place away from scoring a point in the team's first outing.

Parnelli stunned the establishment by qualifying 3rd at Watkins Glen. Parnelli stunned the establishment by qualifying 3rd at Watkins Glen.
• Flashes of promise despite Firestone withdrawal
But much better was to come at Watkins Glen for the 1974 season finale. As Andretti says, "The Glen was so bumpy and the car so goddam soft, we kinda hit a balance." Add in some local knowledge, and the result? An amazing 3rd place on the grid, only 0.231s off pole. Although it came to nothing the next day, when electrical problems intervened and Andretti was disqualified four laps into the race for receiving outside assistance, it signalled the arrival of Parnelli as perhaps a truly competitive American team on the Formula One stage.

Or did it? Despite the promise of Watkins Glen and the possibility that, especially if the VPJ4's suspension was stiffened further, the car may have been developed into a regular points contender, how seriously were Jones and Miletich taking the project? They were still also concentrating on an F5000 campaign for not only Unser but Andretti also, requiring Mario to commute to and from the States, and the month of May would still be dedicated to the Indianapolis 500, even if that meant missing Grands Prix along the way. Clearly, Parnelli's F1 effort was not an all-hands-on-deck affair.

The 1975 season proved to be one in which the Parnelli was never in the right place at the right time, reliability being as much a problem as speed. In Argentina, Andretti qualified 10th and was up to 8th after 27 laps when the transmission failed. A severe setback came immediately afterwards when Firestone decided to pull the plug from competition which even Miletich's ties with the company could not prevent, forcing a hurried switch to Goodyears. Andretti only qualified 18th in Brazil on the unfamiliar rubber, but just as the VPJ4 was struggling it decided to be reliable, finishing 7th.

South Africa saw the Parnelli back up towards the pointy end of the grid, although its 6th position on the grid once again meant nothing when a combination of transmission, driveshaft and CV joint problems stopped the car after 70 of the 78 laps. However, after such a stuttering beginning to the season, in the next two races Parnelli came good, coinciding with the introduction of a second VPJ4 with a high airbox. In the non-championship International Trophy at Silverstone, a cautious qualifying saw Andretti start 9th, but a strong run in the race resulted in a fabulous podium finish in 3rd place.

What might have been: Andretti led on the streets of Spain. What might have been: Andretti led on the streets of Spain.
• Defeat from the jaws of victory at Montjuich Park
But where the Parnelli truly starred was at the next championship event, the controversial Spanish GP at Montjuich Park. On this ramshackle but exciting street circuit, on the Friday the drivers belonging to the Grand Prix Drivers Association refused to run because the armco barriers had not been bolted properly. A botchy repair job was completed by Saturday qualifying, in which the softly-sprung VPJ4 found the bumpy characteristics of the track to its liking. Andretti lined up 4th, alongside James Hunt's Hesketh and behind the two Ferraris.

At the start of the race, an ambitious Vittorio Brambilla in the March, who had started 5th, tried to pass the Parnelli, succeeding only in punting the US car into the back of Niki Lauda's Ferrari. Lauda in turn ran into team-mate Clay Regazzoni, and both Ferraris were effectively out on the spot. Hunt was now in the lead, ahead of Andretti who had managed to continue, but when the Hesketh crashed on lap seven, Parnelli found itself in the lead of a Grand Prix. And there it stayed, looking like making the American team a winner in only its sixth championship race.

Andretti was setting a pace no one could match; indeed, the Parnelli eventually picked up the kudos for setting the fastest lap of the race. But then disaster struck, when a toe-link in the rear suspension failed, possibly as a result of Brambilla's initial hit, pitching Mario into the wall. Although for Jones, Miletich and co this was now academic, Rolf Stommelen's Hill now led, until he too crashed very seriously, injuring himself and tragically killing several spectators, with the subsequent delay in stopping this carnage-ridden event handing Jochen Mass victory but only half-points in the McLaren.

One might have expected that a team that was more desperate to make a name for itself on the F1 stage might have used the glimpses of promise at Kyalami, Silverstone and Montjuich as an impetus for greater development, but after a somewhat more ordinary performance at Monaco where Andretti started 13th and retired after 13 laps as well with an oil fire, May came around and the VPJ4 project was put on hold for the Indy 500. For this, Jones and Miletich aimed to change a VPJ4 to USAC specifications and install a Cosworth turbo V8.

Sweden provided Parnelli with its best ever Grand Prix result. Sweden provided Parnelli with its best ever Grand Prix result.
• Points-scoring results before the rot set in
This was to be called the VPJ6, the VPJ5 having been an ill-fated F5000 design that never got off the ground, leaving the team to run Lolas in the American F5000 championship for Unser and Andretti all season. However, the VPJ6 also proved a disappointment, its poor handling wasting the power and fuel economy of the Cosworth DFX engine. Unser and Andretti ended up qualifying and racing Eagle Offenhausers instead, Mario crashing out after 49 laps. In the meantime they had missed the Belgian GP, and in view of the problematic Indy campaign, one wonders if it was all worth it.

To prove the point, at Anderstorp for the Swedish GP the Parnelli qualified 15th but raced to 4th in a race of some attrition, delivering the American team its first World Championship points. They then missed the Dutch GP when it clashed with Stateside commitments, but when they returned for the French, after starting 15th Andretti took the flag in 5th, increasing the team's points tally to 5. This stretch of F1 races from South Africa to France had been something of a impressive flourish that should in turn have given Jones and Miletich reason to put F1 higher on their priority list.

But sadly they didn't, and in fact Jones would allow no more testing for the VPJ4 for the rest of the season, Not surprisingly, no more progress was made on the car, and the team went backwards. Andretti's results for the rest of the season demonstrated that. In the British GP, after starting 12th he finished in the same position, having fallen back after a collision with Jean-Pierre Jarier. Then in Germany, where the team debuted a third VPJ4, Mario was delayed by a broken wheel and then suffered a fuel leak which saw the car run out of fuel after 12 of the 14 laps, though he was still classified 10th.

At the Österreichring the Parnelli was off the pace right from the outset, qualifying a lowly 19th some 3.12s behind Lauda, and then on lap 2 the VPJ4/3 was written off altogether in a monumental shunt. That meant reverting to the VPJ4/2 for the Italian GP at Monza, where again Andretti could only manage 15th on the grid, before a concertina collision at the chicane on the second lap caused by Jody Scheckter put out the VPJ4 as well as Brambilla, Tony Brise and Ronnie Peterson, as well as inflicting damage on a series of others.

Air Andretti: the VPJ4 gets airborne at the Nurburgring. Air Andretti: the VPJ4 gets airborne at the Nurburgring.
• It's a new car? No such luck for 1976 ...
That left only Parnelli's home race at Watkins Glen to go to complete the 1975 season, and once again the unevenness of the circuit was to the car's liking. Andretti started 5th but, in an all-too-familiar scenario, suspension failure caused him to retire after only 9 laps. With 5 points, the team came 10th in the 1975 Constructors' championship. Clearly, the VPJ4's suspension set-up meant that the car was only ever suited to certain tracks, and even then, while on some occasions Parnelli had just been unlucky, reliability was nonetheless a constant bugbear.

That did not reflect well on the team's level of preparation and attention to detail. Again, it indicated that maybe Jones and Miletich were half-hearted in their approach to F1. That was perhaps understandable; after all, Parnelli as a racing team were huge in America, Unser and Andretti had just come 2nd and 3rd respectively in the US F5000 series which was clearly a more profitable venture as far as the team were concerned, the Indy 500 was the jewel in the crown in American motorsport, and all the team's money came from the USA.

It was perhaps only logical that Parnelli would be focussing on the US scene, with F1 as an aside. That was not Andretti's game plan though. As he says, "I was disappointed there wasn't any real development going into 1976. I thought we'd have a new car, but unbeknownst to me, Vel and Parnelli were dragging their feet." In fact, all Jones and Miletich were doing was slightly upgrading the VPJ4 into the VPJ4B, and even then the modified machine was not ready for the season opener in Brazil. Instead, at Interlagos Andretti was picked up by Lotus as team-mate to Peterson for a one-off drive ...

The VPJ4B finally arrived in time for the South African GP, but the Viceroy sponsorship had gone. Instead, to demonstrate the American-ness of the team, the white car was emblazoned with the stars and stripes and a message celebrating the bicentenary of the USA. After starting 13th, Andretti overcame a down-on-power Cosworth engine to eventually finish a lapped 6th, bringing home Parnelli's sixth and final World Championship point, which eventually would earn the team 13th place in the 1976 Constructors' championship.

The Viceroy sponsorship was gone by the start of 1976. The Viceroy sponsorship was gone by the start of 1976.
• Don't dream it's over: Jones and Miletich pull the plug
Then came Long Beach for the first US West GP. Here the team picked up sponsorship from American Racing Wheels, and the car appeared in an attractive blue and white livery. But it did nothing to improve the now-outdated car's performance, Andretti only managing to qualify 15th. However Mario was about to receive a shock, when just before the start of the race Chris Economaki, the noted commentator, came up to him and asked, "Mario, what's your reaction on this being your last race with Vel and Parnelli Jones?" Jones and Miletich had decided to pull the plug on the F1 team.

Andretti had never been privy to that decision. He was so upset that he forgot to put the car into gear at the start, which meant little anyway since a water leak forced him out after 15 laps, but that was obviously not his primary concern. Jones and Miletich had decided to compete in Indy Cars instead, and since Mario's contract with them had only been a payment schedule he refused to return across the Atlantic, preferring to spend the next few years making a go of F1. In a classic moment, when Miletich pointed out their contract, straight-talking Andretti said, "You can wipe your behind with that!"

As Mario says though, Miletich was "a good man", and though it meant the end of their working relationship, there was no animosity. Parnelli returned to the States, brought out the VPJ6 again, improved it into the VPJ6B, and went onto the Indy Car trail with Unser and Danny Ongais. Unser won several races in 1976, and Ongais was victorious on multiple occasions in 1977-79. In 1979 even A.J. Foyt bought customer VPJ6Cs from the team, but when the CART-USAC war broke out, Jones and Miletich withdrew from the scene, although Jones' son, P.J. Jones, eventually drove in CART in the 1990s.

Andretti, meanwhile, found his home in F1. After Brazil, Peterson had also left Lotus for March, and so Colin Chapman brought in the talented Gunnar Nilsson and gave test driver Bob Evans a race start. But Evans proved something of a disappointment, and after failing to qualify at Long Beach was left to testing duties. Fittingly, Andretti became a free agent once Parnelli had disappeared, and rejoined Lotus. Victory in the famous 1976 Japanese GP was followed by four more in 1977, before the Lotus 79 and a further six wins in 1978 carried Mario to the World Championship title.

California dreaming: Parnelli's last race was on the streets of Long Beach. California dreaming: Parnelli's last race was on the streets of Long Beach.
• Penske succeeds where Parnelli hadn't
So, in the end, perhaps by abandoning their indifferent F1 effort Parnelli had done the right thing by Andretti, leaving him to pursue his F1 goals in a team that was as committed to success as he. As an aside, Parnelli's F1 story had been in marked contrast to another American team, Penske, that had also debuted at the 1974 Canadian GP. From that race to the end of 1976, Penske went through four different cars (compared to Parnelli's one) as they strove for success, eventually winning the 1976 Austrian GP through John Watson before calling time and also leaving F1 for Indy Cars.

But at least Penske had made a proper fist of F1, which Parnelli never did. With only their six points, Jones and Miletich's outfit safely qualified for this site although clearly, with more work on the VPJ4 which was not without promise, they could have scored more. Yet it has always been a shame for F1 that America has its various own racing series, from NASCAR to Indy Cars to CART, which capture their local fans' imaginations and leave little market space for Grand Prix racing. And not just the fans, but clearly the teams as well. The story of Parnelli's dabble in F1 showed that.

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