Charles Bronson and his team at BLVDMC were very grateful to have the opportunity to facilitate the acquisition of the Vel's Parnelli Jones Collection by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Foundation, highlighted by the two famous "Johnny Lighting Special" cars.
Opportunistic American mechanics, drivers and team owners were quick to recognize a good thing, so just a few years after Jimmy Clark and Graham Hill set the Indianapolis crowd on their ears with their mid-engined Lotuses and Coopers, American chief mechanics flooded the oval tracks and road courses of the USAC Champ Trail with mid-engined cars.
Jack Brabham’s first appearance at the Brickyard in 1961 with his little 2.7-liter Coventry Climax powered Cooper saw him qualify 13th, finish 9th and take home a heroic payday by the grand prix standards of the day. The first to recognize what was happening was the ever-resourceful Mickey Thompson. He teamed up with Dan Gurney with a proprietary chassis and aluminum Buick V8 power to qualify 8th in 1962.
Like the Stones following the Beatles’ British Invasion, 1963 made it clear the Indy roadster was on its way out when Jimmy Clark and Gurney brought Colin Chapman over with lightweight Lotuses powered by Ford V8 engines. Clark was barely beaten by Parnelli Jones in a Watson-Offy roadster. Jones took the lesson to heart.
In 1964, 12 of the 33 starters on the bricks were mid-engined. Their builders read like a directory of Gasoline Alley: Watson, Epperly, Huffaker, Vollstedt, Thompson and Halibrand. Only two builders, Lotus and Brabham, came from across the pond.
In 1965 only a single roadster, Gordon Johncock’s Watson, finished in the top ten. There were only six front-engined roadsters in the 33-car field. In 1966 there was only one roadster left, driven by the appropriately named Bobby Grim. The transition was complete. In just five years the composition of the Indianapolis field and the shape of American Big Car racing had been completely transformed.
Standing still wasn’t an option, though, when Andy Granatelli’s STP Corporation showed up in 1967 with the four wheel drive turbine driven by Parnelli Jones. After leading nearly every lap of the rain-interrupted race a 25¢ part in the gearbox failed, bringing the “Whooshmobile” to a halt and turning the race over to A.J. Foyt’s Coyote-Ford V8.
There were subtexts to these momentous seven years, including Ford’s drive to dominate all forms of racing from Grand Prix and Le Mans to the drag strips, NASCAR ovals and USAC open wheelers. Firestone and Goodyear battled each other like the heavyweight champions they were, neither giving nor asking for quarter.
The advantages of four-wheel drive had been shown in 1967 and George Bignotti sought to profit from combining it with the Ford V8 in 1968. He bought a single four-wheel drive Lola with Ford V8 power for Al Retzlaff to be driven by Al Unser. It was PJColt #2 - Chassis 001.
In the 500 Unser qualified the 4WD Lola outside the second row in sixth position but crashed on lap 40 when a spindle broke. After being repaired in England it returned in time for the USAC road course race at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Unser proved his versatility by winning both ends of the two-heat feature. His victory came just a week after taking his first USAC Championship victory on the dirt at Nazareth. He followed op on these wins with another victory later in the season at Langhorne.
A major development in 1969 was the foundation of the Vel’s Parnelli Jones Ford team. With backing from Ford and Firestone Vel Miletich and Parnelli Jones set up their own team, buying out Al Retzlaff and acquiring along with his Lola-Fords the services of legendary chief mechanic George Bignotti, his co-chief Jim Dilamarter and driver Al Unser. The objective was not only to dominate USAC racing in North America but also to race competitively in international grands prix, carrying the Firestone banner into territory dominated by Goodyear.
USAC had reacted to the perceived advantages of 4-wheel drive by restricting them to just 10-inch tire widths, effectively robbing the promising but expensive technology of its advantage and not incidentally protecting the installed base of USAC car owners. Bignotti and Dilamarter converted this car, wearing USAC #3 signifying Al Unser’s 1968 driving championship standing, to rear wheel drive with side-mounted fuel cells and the distinctive “coal chute” rear decks feeding air to rear-mounted oil coolers.
Recognizing the extent of the modifications, it was renamed the Vel’s Parnelli Jones Special. In its first race at Phoenix, Al put the Vel’s Parnelli Jones Special on the pole but the Ford dropped a valve on lap 14 while in the lead. After Hanford on April 13 the show headed for Indianapolis for the month of May.
It rained, and rained some more throughout the first week of qualifying. Unser was fast, but broke his leg in a motorcycle accident while waiting for the weather to clear. This car was turned over the veteran Bud Tingelstad who qualified 18th and was classified 15th when a Ford valve again let the team down on the 155th lap. Jim Malloy qualified and finished second with it in the Rex Mays Classic at the Milwaukee Mile, then seventh at Langhorne with Rislone sponsorship. Unser crashed in practice for the 151 mile road course race at Continental Divide on July 6, taking over Malloy’s #15 car for the feature but dropped out with a broken suspension.
Al capped this car’s season with a win from the pole at Phoenix on November 15, finishing second in the driver’s championship to Mario Andretti, a remarkable accomplishment considering that after his motorcycle accident at Indy he had only 19 starts to Andretti’s 24.
For 1970 the Lola-based Vel’s Parnelli Jones Special was again modified with aerodynamic improvements and changed its identity yet again to “Lola-Colt.” Bignotti and Dilamarter built two more cars using this proven and highly developed car as the pattern. They were known as “P.J. Colts”.
Miletich and Jones signed Topper Toys as the team’s season-long sponsor. Its dramatic “Johnny Lightning” blue livery with bold yellow lightning bolts outlined in red has become one of racing’s most recognized and brilliant liveries. The diminutive gravity racers enjoyed much success, primarily on account of their unique launch feature, a small hook which engaged a catapult device for a faster launch than their better known competitors.
For the 1970 season this car became Al Unser’s entry on short paved ovals and road courses on his way to a legendary season in which he would win ten of 18 starts including the Indy 500, record 15 top-5 finishes and capture eight poles. It was close to total domination and set Al Unser on his way to his total of four Indy 500 wins.
With this car he won at Phoenix in the season opener, at Indianapolis Raceway Park in July, the Tony Bettenhausen 200 at Milwaukee in August and the Trenton 300 in October. He was two laps in the lead in the California 500 at Ontario in September when the transmission broke with just 14 laps to go. Other placings include 3rd at Sears Point, 3rd at Trenton, 3rd in the Rex Mays 150 at Milwaukee, 2nd at Langhorne, 5th on the road course at Continental Divide and 2nd at the season-ending race at Phoenix
The following year Unser’s Indy 500 entry was the 1971 PJ Colt #1 "Johnny Lighting Special" Chassis 101.
There are two kinds of excitement in automobile racing. The first, and rarest, occurs when a popular team is able to put all the craggy angles of victory together: design, tuning, conviction, pit stops, tough racing and the checkered flag. The second, hateful because of its frequency, occurs when some calamity or chain of accidents develops during the race and more good guys are hurt than the victory of another good guy warrants. The Indianapolis 500 '71 was excitement of the second variety.
It could have been the perfect race. There were cloudless skies, temperatures in the 60s, an A-O.K. launch of the helium balloons and Peter DePaolo singing Back Home Again in Indiana. Peter is the guy who won Indy in 1925—a brusque, balding old racer who might hit a sour note now and then but is never afraid to croon like Sinatra on the final bar. Even Tony Hulman, the main cog in Indy's gearbox, put a little more pep than usual into his "Gentlemen, start your engines" number. And the engines themselves sounded swell, particularly the turbocharged Offenhausers of pole sitter Peter Revson and that dedicated engineer, Mark Donohue, in their superquick McLarens. No one doubted that records would fall this day, but no one really knew who would knock them down, or in what categories. The old Indianapolis electricity surged toward its traditional overload as the cars snarled around on the preliminary laps. Aerial bombs punctuated the engine noise in a sporadic barrage—it was all just dandy—and then....
Just as the 33 cars took the green flag, just as all that energy and emotion peaked, the pace car crashed into a photographers' stand. The pace car was an orange Dodge Challenger convertible driven by one Eldon Palmer, an Indianapolis car dealer. Since no Detroit automaker had offered a car to pace the big race this year, what with the recession and all, Indy's wise men accepted Palmer's offer of a couple dozen cars, contingent on his request to drive the celebrity machine during the pace laps. It was replete with Hulman, ex-astronaut-politician John Glenn and TV's Chris Schenkel.
Palmer avoided the mistake of Benson Ford back in 1966, who drove very slowly, but when he entered the pit road at 125 mph just before the start, he made an error of his own. A flagpole that Palmer had used as a guide for braking during practice had been removed for the race (too dangerous), and he failed to hit the brakes until he had nearly run out of pit. The car spurted blue smoke, slued out of shape as it hit the slick grass at the pit road's end, then crashed at perhaps 35 miles an hour into the crowded photo stand. It was a frightening scene—one to suggest a slaughter—and not until late in the race was the crowd told that all the pace-car occupants were unhurt, that there had been no fatalities. The reckoning was ugly enough: the journalist Vicente Alvarez of Argentina critically injured, a guard and three photographers hospitalized with broken bones or other serious injuries, a dozen other photographers cut, bruised and dazed.
That was just for openers. Mark Donohue tried his best to rekindle the early joyous excitement by pulling away from the pack as if they were kiddie cars rather than Indy cars. He opened an eight-second lead in the first four laps, running at 171.054 mph—more than seven miles an hour faster than Mario Andretti's record speed for the same distance in 1969. "It wasn't merely speed," said Jackie Stewart, the Scot road racer who almost won the 500 in 1966 but was a nonracing TV commentator this year. "Donohue is a man with a head. He was driving very carefully through traffic, not pressing either himself or the machine." Others, however, were pressing too hard—part of the gross differential in speed between the fastest and slowest cars that helped make this Indy the most dangerous in years. "The period of what I call collection is so short now," sighed Stewart. "Because of these high speeds—165 in the corners, by God—when something happens ahead of you, you have less time to avoid it than ever before."
The time shrink hit three drivers on the 16th lap. Steve Krisiloff, a young charger in an Andy Granatelli car, blew his engine entering Turn Three. Mel Kenyon, in one of the green Sprite Specials, skidded on the oil and walloped the wall. Gordon Johncock, a front-runner in the Offy-powered Vollstedt Special, ran right over Kenyon's car ("I've got tire tracks on my helmet," Mel chuckled later) and wiped out his own car in the process. Mario Andretti, in the premier Granatelli car, swerved but nicked the wreckage and spun out through the infield grass. Only Kenyon was injured—a gashed leg, not serious. Since Mel was already a walking catalog of racing injuries, it was probably of no more concern to him than a hangnail.
The wreckage produced a long cautionary slowdown—17 laps of yellow light. No sooner had the green light flashed back on than Peter Revson developed problems. They were probably as much psychological as mechanical, but Revson, who had been running second to Donohue, suddenly felt that his car was steering badly. He backed off—to his ultimate regret when he finished only 20 seconds behind the winner. "I blew it right there," he admitted later. "The car felt funny to me—very heavy." By the time Revson regained confidence in his steering, he was too far back.
On Lap 67 came a particularly unkind cut: Mark Donohue's gearbox failed. The American driver who exemplifies the best in automotive science and road-racing cool was undone by broken gear teeth. Mark parked his car neatly on the grass off Turn Four and spent the rest of the race in the pits, making no excuses. Neither did his alter ego and captain, Roger Penske. "We'll be around for a while," allowed Roger.
Donohue's dropout left the race in the hands of the men who know it best—the old USAC pros. For many laps Joe Leonard, in a yellow Samsonite Special prepared by George Bignotti, dueled furiously with his more famous teammate, defending champ Al Unser, but then Joe's turbocharger blew on Lap 124. Al, in a new Johnny Lightning Ford looking very much like the one with which he won the race and the USAC championship last year, had retaken the lead at 118 laps—and thereafter he kept it. Where was brother Bobby? Charging hard in a wicked dark blue Eagle-Offy set up by Dan Gurney. Bobby had been hassled by the police earlier in the month for street speeding, and many of the longhaired counterculturists in the crowd were cheering him on. Lloyd Ruby, admired for his speed and pitied for his foul luck at Indy and now running fourth, was the true love of the multitude, but then Lloyd was black-flagged for a smoking engine and he took the sad, familiar walk back up pit row.
There were other woes of attrition yet to come, and one was a horror—a scare relieved in a way by courage, yet a scare you would not want to experience every May 29. Closing on Mike Mosley's G.C. Murphy Special as he entered Turn Four late in the race, Bobby Unser nearly bought the same chunk of the farm that his brother Jerry did back in 1959. Mosley, who had hit the wall twice during qualifying, hit it again. Unser saw Mosley shed a tire and smack the wall, then spun and hit it himself. Mosley's car erupted in a 40-foot gout of flame; bits and pieces of machinery splattered in every direction.
Gary Bettenhausen, running far back in his sluggish Thermo King Special, stopped when he came to the wreckage, vaulted out of his car while it was still rolling and pulled Mosley from the fire. Memories of dad, perhaps; Tony Bettenhausen had been killed in a fiery crash in 1961. Mosley was helicoptered out with a broken leg and burns—his condition "serious"—but Bobby was unhurt except for "a heckuva headache." At about this time brother Al slipped past—now safely in the lead—and sped on toward Victory Lane. "I knew Bobby was in that mess, but on the next lap I saw him standing there, waving at me," Al said later. "It was a comfort."
Well, maybe a bit more than that. Saturday just happened to be Al Unser's 32nd birthday. If some $240,000 in prize money wasn't present enough, the fact that he had become only the fourth back-to-back winner in the race's 55-year history probably helped. (Wilbur Shaw was the first to double up, in 1939-40, followed by Mauri Rose in 1947-48 and Bill Vukovich in 1953-54.) Al set a new record of 157.735 mph as well. No one could begrudge him the triumph. Unser's handling of the car was superb, and Bignotti's pit work was beyond price: in four pit stops he used up 18 fewer seconds than Revson's men did in three—i.e., just about the margin of victory. "I'm just as happy as last year," Al said, "but the first time you win, you lose all sense of direction when you pull into Victory Lane. This year I knew where to go."
Casting his thoughts back over the day's adventures and misadventures, Jackie Stewart described this 500 as the "fullest" in his experience, and so it was for many. As Al Unser again tasted the sweetness of victory, the Penske-Donohue camp mourned a final calamity: the splendid racing machine Mark had left parked in Turn Four had been wiped out by the Mosley-Bobby Unser crash. "Well, what racing is all about is bloody noses," said a slightly sloshed old campaigner. "You go out and get a bloody nose, and then you don't just sit around and sulk, but you go out again. I've gotten more bloody noses in my life than I've gotten good dinners." Certainly men like Mark Donohue and Roger Penske, or Peter Revson, or Lloyd Ruby, or Bobby Unser, or even the men surprised by the sudden arrival of Eldon Palmer's pace car, would have to agree with that philosophy. If they didn't, there would never be the first kind of excitement.