By MIKE LOPRESTI
It was 2 a.m. in Parnelli Jones’ room. The calendar had just turned to May 31, 1963, and sleep would not come for the newest winner of the Indianapolis 500.
“I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror to make sure I wasn’t dreaming,” he said 50 years later, sitting near the track that changed his life. “That’s what it meant to me. It put a glow in you somehow that you can’t describe.”
A glow with the power to last a half-century. And counting.
This is Rufus Parnell Jones, on the cusp of 80 years old: Still active, mourning how hard it is to keep a decent golf handicap.
Still appreciative, of what that day in 1963 meant to him. “It gives you a stature,” he said, “that will live forever.”
Still Parnelli, the name born when a high school buddy combined Parnell and a classmate named Nellie, who had a crush on Jones. Rufus Jones was 17 at the time and wanting to race before he was of legal age. So he needed an alias, and it has never left his side.
Still a man with a racer’s heart. “People ask, ‘What do you do now?’ I’ve never retired. I say every day is race day. When you drive in traffic, it’s similar to racing.”
Sometimes too much. Jones’ cruising speed has been known to attract the attention of the occasional highway patrol radar device, including the time in California the officer pulled him over and asked, “Who do you think you are, Parnelli Jones?”
Jones took out his license. “As a matter of fact, . . .”
And one other thing. He is now the oldest living winner of the Indianapolis 500.
“I want to hold that title for a long time,” he said. “I guess I’m proud of it.”
He won in sprint cars and stocks cars and off-track races. He won as a driver and as an owner. All he needed was four wheels and a finish line, and he was game. He’d win one thing, and go on to try something else. Sport, business, whatever. “I’m the kind of guy,” he said, “who likes to see what’s on the other side of the hill.”
But Indianapolis was his Everest. How best to mark the 50th anniversary of his victory here? Perhaps the remarkable story of the wind-blown cowboy hat.
It was a straw hat that had become something of an iconic symbol for Jones in 1963. He wore it in Victory Lane that day. He wore it when he took his celebration lap — until it blew off in the second turn.
“I saw a kid grab it, and I figured I’d get it back. He’d bring it to Victory Lane or something,” Jones said. “But I didn’t get it back.”
Fast forward to January of 2013. Jones was being awarded a Baby Borg trophy – a replica of the Indy 500 award – and his likeness on the trophy included the cowboy hat. “At least, I’m going to get my hat back,” he joked during a radio interview then.
Listening by chance that day was George “Skip” Surface Jr., from nearby Greenwood. He was the kid who grabbed the hat. Even more, he still had it, a keepsake that he realized should go back on its original head.
Last Sunday during qualifying, Surface returned the hat that Jones had watched fly away so long ago.
“Can you imagine,” Jones said, “getting a straw hat back after 50 years?”
He raced here only seven years, buy they were momentous enough – and fast enough – to make a legend that will last as long as the bricks. He was the top rookie in 1961, took the pole and became the first man to break 150 miles-an-hour in 1962, and led much of the race before his brakes failed.
“I can remember after the ’61 rookie year and how I had a chance to win, that I couldn’t wait until next year. Then after ’62, when I was leading and long gone, I couldn’t wait till the next year,” he said. “I just felt like it owed me.”
The next year, he won.
Then there was 1967. He was driving Andy Granatelli’s revolutionary turbine car, which sounded like a vacuum cleaner but moved like a rocket. Starting on the outside of the second row, Jones blew past four cars by the first turn, and roared past pole-sitter Mario Andretti out of Turn 2. “Mario gave me the one-lap signal,” Jones said. Well, it was one finger, anyway.
The laps passed by, and nobody was going to catch Jones in his turbine. It was to be a history-making, sport-rattling victory. Until he slowed on the 196th lap, 10 miles from his second victory, the victim of a transmission bearing that cost $6.
Forty-six years later, he blames himself for pushing the car too hard coming out of the pits. “If I had just taken it a little bit easier, it would have easily won the race,” he said. “It stayed with me a long time. It took me years to get over that.
“After the race, the feeling that I got when I went to leave town was like when you leave the house and you know you’ve forgotten something and you can’t figure out what it is.”
But it was curious, the thought going through his mind as he drove that day, leading effortlessly, lap after dominating lap.
“I was thinking that winning probably wouldn’t be as exciting because it meant so much to me the first time,” he said. “It helped me make a decision. If it wasn’t going to be that exciting, why do you keep doing this?
“I made a strong decision that changed my whole life.”
He would never again race at Indianapolis.
“Things turned out good,” he said of a racing life that has been so blessed, except for the day in 1994 his son Page was nearly killed in an accident with severe head injuries. But Page continues to recover, and on this 50th anniversary, Parnelli Jones can enjoy what he does so well – being Parnelli Jones.
All he need do is look in the mirror again. No, it has not been a dream.