It was in 1960 that Parnelli Jones came east with the Fike Plumbing Special out of Phoenix which was powered by a small-block Chevy, and began kicking the butts of the venerable Offenhauser-powered cars. If I recall correctly, that was also the last year USAC had a midwest champion and an eastern champion. Parnelli won the midwest title, and some guy named Foyt won the No. 1 in the east.
The thing I remember most is the battles they had on the high-banked track there, as well as at Winchester and Dayton – Parnelli in that Fike Chevy and AJ Foyt driving the Offy-powered Bowes Seal Fast Special. Foyt had just won the first of his four Indianapolis 500-mile races that year, so he was a big crowd draw.
In September, both came to Salem for the Joe James-Pat O’Connor Memorial, and both were, as usual, fast. Parnelli qualified fastest by a whisker and beat Foyt by a car length in the first heat. They took three cars out of each heat race in those days, lining them up in the feature by the way they finished the heat. The next three fell back to the next heat race, and the process was repeated until they got through four of them and then everybody not in the feature went in the semi-feature (or “hooligan” as they used to call it). They took the top-two finishers out of that one to make a 14-car field, I believe.
On this particular day, there was a blown engine in the semi, and when they started the feature, there was still some oil-dry (usually just cement in those days) on the track at the entrance to turn 1. When the green flag fell, Parnelli jumped in front and roared into the first turn, then promptly got into the oil dry and headed up toward the fence. I was standing on the infield tower, and I figured he was just about to bounce off the outside wall as Foyt, also slipping a little, started by on the inside. Right then and there I observed one of the best pieces of driving I’ve ever seen.
Foyt went by on the inside in the first and second turns while Parnelli was dirt-tracking it up high on the banking, somehow maintaining control. It was obvious by this time that he had saved it, but was probably going to have to settle for second. Foyt naturally took the high line after getting past him, and as they came out of turn 2, Parnelli was still sideways, but pointed down the backstretch. He finally got a grip on the track and shot down the hill and roared past Foyt going into turn 3.
For all practical purposes, that ended the race. Jones was two car-lengths in front coming down the front straightaway to lead the first lap, and he led the rest of the way.
After it was all over, Foyt said, “I figured he’d lost it – where did he come from?”