INDIANAPOLIS — In a year like this one, you take your blessings as you find them, particularly as Thanksgiving approaches.
In my line of work, what you’re always most thankful for are great stories and great storytellers, and nobody in this sport spins a tale better than Bobby Unser. That’s largely because he feels no need to make himself the star of every adventure.
A lot of Bobby’s memories circle back to Parnelli Jones and A.J. Foyt, and that magic mid-’60s period when they were the best all-around drivers in America. Bobby’s star was still in ascent, but he had an up-close look at Jones, whom he reveres, and Foyt, whom he merely respects.
Time has changed A.J. and Parnelli from square-jawed hardcases into mellow octogenarians. Whenever they cross paths, there are wide, genuine smiles. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking it was always like this. Says Unser, “No matter how they treat each other now, their rivalry was deeper and harder than most people could imagine.”
With that as preamble, here’s a Thanksgiving-themed anecdote to carry you back, with Bobby’s help, more than 50 years. Ascot Park, outside Los Angeles, was a regular Foyt/Jones battleground and the Turkey Night Grand Prix — in those days a 150-lapper — was the premier midget race on the calendar.
We begin in 1964 with Jones, aboard the Hollywood Spring & Axle Special, lapping the field on his way to victory. Among those eating Parnelli’s dust was Foyt; his fifth place looked OK on paper, but he was so far behind Jones he could have finished in Pasadena.
No one’s pride was fiercer than Foyt’s; this kind of loss was a humiliation. So in 1965, as another Turkey Night approached, A.J. lined up a new ride: the Hollywood Spring & Axle car.
Unser: “That pissed Parnelli off like you could not believe.”
Jones remembered another midget, one he’d driven to glory in the Midwest. He picked up the phone, bought the thing from famed Illinois owner Howard Linne and had it shipped west.
“I did that,” Parnelli admitted, “just so I could race Foyt.”
In New Mexico, the anticipation drove Unser mad. He didn’t have a Turkey Night ride, but he wasn’t about to miss it.
“This is going to be a race between Parnelli and Foyt,” says Bobby. “I jumped into my old airplane and flew all the way to California just to watch it.”
Ascot was buzzing. Jones set fast time and led 43 laps before a broken wheel sent him flipping. Foyt led 68 laps, pitted to replace a tire he’d worn out chasing Jones, and ultimately ran out of fuel.
Jones hid his frustrations for a year, then released them by again lapping the field — twice this time — in Turkey Night ’66. But his life was in transition. He began to focus on stock cars and road racing, forsaking the dangerous midgets.
“Parnelli had made up his mind that he wasn’t going to die in a race car,” says Unser.
But Jones still had that ex-Linne car and in the autumn of 1968, he had an idea.
“One day my phone rings, and it’s Rufus,” Unser recalls, using Parnelli’s real name. “He says, ‘You want to run Turkey Night?’
“I said, ‘In whose car?’
“He said, ‘My car!’
“I said, ‘Just tell me when to be there.’”
Here, Unser smiles. “All this is because Foyt is going to run that race. The car has special everything and Dick Jones from Champion Spark Plugs has the engine on the dyno, all because Parnelli wants to beat Foyt.”
Come Thanksgiving, Unser was fast in warm-ups but had a bad qualifying draw and watched Sam Sessions win the pole.
“Parnelli says, ‘Can you stand a little more power? Maybe a little nitro?’ I told him, ‘Put as much power in this son of a bitch as you want.’”
Jones poured in the juice and anticipating a heavy cushion, cranked in some right-rear weight. Unser started the feature “a couple of rows” behind Foyt, but the two of them drove straight to the front. A.J. got there first.
“By now I’ve figured out that my job, as far as Parnelli is concerned, is to beat Foyt. If I run second-to-last, Foyt had better be last. But my car is so nice; I’m just desperately fast. I get to Foyt and I blow him off. I’m swelled up like a bullfrog.”
He was not the only proud croaker on the grounds.
“Going down the back straightaway, I see Rufus standing way out in the middle of the race track. But he’s not signaling me; he’s throwing the finger to Foyt!”
Neither Unser nor Foyt got the result they wanted. Toward the end, Sessions overwhelmed A.J. and everyone else and Bobby’s Turkey Night ended with a ring-and-pinion failure.
Unser says, “I’m dejected, thinking, ‘Did I run it too hard? Did I bang it off the cushion too much?’ I coast in and park the car. I said, ‘Rufe, I’m sorry.’
“Well, he just stood there, smiling. We’d just dropped out of the biggest midget race of the year — leading it, gone — and yet Parnelli was happy. He didn’t give a damn about how we finished. He just wanted to outrun Foyt.”
Happy Thanksgiving to Bobby, to A.J., to Parnelli and to you.