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JUN 26, 2024 | By Donald Farr

Remembering Parnelli Jones: Mustang And Bronco Lose A Ford Racing Legend

Parnelli Jones Standing by Ford Mustang Race Car

Parnelli Jones, 1970 Mustang Trans-Am champion and Bronco off-road racing legend, crossed the final checkered flag on June 4, 2024, at age 90 after a long illness.Parnelli Jones behind the wheel of a Mustang

Born Rufus Parnell Jones on August 12, 1933, the future championship driver became known as “Parnelli” when, at age 17, he used an adaptation of his middle name to hide his identity to cover up the fact that he wasn’t old enough to race. Growing up in the hot-rod culture of southern California, Jones had quickly shifted from riding horses to driving hopped-up Ford Model Ts and coupes before taking his driving passion to “jalopy races” at nearby Carrell Speedway in 1952. From there, he moved into sprint-car racing, earning the California Racing Association’s Rookie of the Year honors in 1958 before taking his hard-charging, flat-out racing style to the sprint car hot-bed of the Midwest where he won the United States Auto Club’s Midwest championship in 1960 and earned USAC’s National title in 1961.Boss Mustang in pits

Jones’ USAC success put him on the fast-track to the Indianapolis 500. He claimed co-Rookie of the Year honors in 1961, set a new qualifying record and led much of 1962 race, and finally scored his first Indy 500 victory in 1963. With his reputation secured, Jones became a “gun for hire” and drove for whoever employed his skills for stock car, sprint car, Indy car, and sports car competition. Notably, he piloted a Bill Stroppe-prepared Mercury Marauder to the USAC stock car championship at the 1963 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.Black and white photo of Boss mustang at pit stop

In 1967, Jones became part of the new SCCA Trans-Am series when Mercury put him in the driver’s seat of a Bud Moore Engineering Cougar. Two years later, Jones was recruited for Ford’s 1969 Trans-Am effort with new Boss 302 Mustangs, two of them prepared by Moore and driven by Jones and George Follmer. During the 1970 season with Jones driving number 15 and Follmer in number 16, the School Bus Yellow Mustangs won six of the season’s 11 races -- five by Jones – to secure the 1970 Trans-Am title at the next-to-last race. With the championship in hand, the Mustang team headed to the final race at Riverside, one that Jones later described as “my best race ever.” After qualifying on the pole and leading the early laps, Jones was shunted off-course by a back-marker, sending the number 15 Mustang to the back of the pack. Even with his Boss 302 badly battered and smoking, Jones ran his fastest lap of the day during a relentless charge to the front. With 10 laps to go, Jones passed teammate Follmer for the win. Thanks to Parnelli Jones, Mustang’s total domination of the 1970 Trans-Am season was complete.Vintage photo of boss on trackWhile Jones is best known in Mustang circles for his Trans-Am exploits, around the same time he was also driving a horse of a different breed. From 1968-74, Jones went off-roading in a Ford Bronco with his friend Bill Stroppe. In 1970, the pair designed and constructed the first purpose-built off-road racing vehicle, a Bronco named “Big Oly,” and proceeded to win the grueling Baja 1000 (twice), Mint 400, and Baja 500. Jones kept Big Oly in his car collection until 2021 when he sold it a Mecum Auction for $1.87 million.Jones Racing on track with Boss MustangJones retired from the driver’s seat in the 1970s to form his own race team, Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing, that competed in Indy Car, USAC, Formula One, and off-road. In 1987, he returned to the track for a one-race stint to help Saleen Autosports win a SCCA Showroom Stock championship at the Sebring season finale. In 2007, Steve Saleen honored Parnelli by introducing a PJ Edition Saleen Mustang in Grabber Orange with hockey-stick side stripes to replicate Jones’ Trans-Am championship 1970 Boss 302.Boss Mustang on TrackIn the early 2010s during the development of a track-oriented Mustang with a Boss heritage, Ford’s Team Mustang sought Jones’ input and approval for the 2012 Boss 302. Jones was on-hand for the Boss 302’s media reveal at Laguna Seca Raceway with Ford’s then-marketing chief Jim Farley commenting, “The character of this car is Parnelli Jones. He is the DNA.” That was reflected in the name of the ultimate track model – Boss 302 Laguna Seca – named to honor Jones’ first win in the Boss 302’s 1970 Trans-Am championship season.Jones with Ford Performance TeamIn his reflective retirement years, Jones realized that he had never owned a Boss 302 Mustang. So he enlisted southern Cal enthusiasts G.S. Johnson and Mark Brown to secure a Grabber Orange 1970 Boss 302 and build it into a street-going version of his number 15 Trans-Am championship car., complete with modified engine and side stripes positioned lower like the 1970 race car.Jones with Saleen

Unlike most professional racers who focus on one type of racing, Parnelli Jones excelled in numerous race series, from oval track to off-road. Early in his career, someone described him: “Parnelli can drive the wheels off anything with a seat.” Thankfully, many of those seats were in Mustangs and Broncos.2007 Parnelli Jones styled Mustang

FORD PERFORMANCE PHOTOS / COURTESY DONALD FARR