Andretti’s Parnelli VPJ-4 Formula One Car Goes to Auction
No story of Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing would be complete without a significant mention of the team’s ambitious foray into the glamorous world of Formula One racing. This 1974 Parnelli VPJ-4 Chassis 4/002 was one of three bespoke Formula One cars built by the operation, which carried Team USA livery on its bodywork for the soon-to-be World Champion driver Mario Andretti.
After entering races in Canada and the U.S. at the end of the 1974 season, Andretti scored a number of impressive finishes for the team in 1975, with a third place at International Trophy Race non-points race at Silverstone in England, fourth place at the Anderstorp Scandinavia Raceway in the Swedish Grand Prix, fifth place at the Circuit Paul Ricard in the French Grand Prix, plus leading 10 laps at the Montjuic Park Circuit at the Spanish Grand Prix.
Even while dominating the world of Indy Car racing in the early 1970s, the partnership of Vel Miletich and Parnelli Jones—in the form of Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing—was looking to conquer new frontiers. While driving for the team, Al Unser scored back-to-back Indianapolis 500 wins in 1970 and 1971 at the wheel of two beautiful Johnny Lightning PJ Colt/Ford racers. Unser backed up these accomplishments by capturing 15 wins in two years and the 1970 USAC Indy Car championship. Unser’s teammate Joe Leonard proved himself to be a formidable foe as well by scoring Indy Car championships in both 1971 and 1972.
With the financial might of Firestone Tire and Rubber Company backing them all the way, Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing was able to field competitive cars in Indy Car racing, USAC Championship Dirt racing, NHRA Funny Car and Top Fuel drag racing, off-road racing, Formula 5000 and Formula One all at the same time. There is no other team in the history of the sport that was able to simultaneously field competitive teams in all of these disciplines. It was amazing at the time and seems unbelievable today, but the fact that it happened is a matter of documented, historic record.
Andretti was part of the Vel’s Parnelli Jones super team of the 1970s along with accomplished teammates Unser and Leonard. Andretti had a burning desire to not only race in Formula One, but to win the World Championship, something he would eventually accomplish with Lotus in 1978. The idea of beating the rest of the world with an American team held a special appeal to Andretti, Miletich and Jones.
Everything about the team was first rate, including its trusted mechanic Jimmy Dilamarter, who was moved from the Indy Car side of things to run the Formula One team. With world renowned designer Maurice Phillippe drawing the new car with assistance from John Baldwin, the team certainly had bigtime potential.
The finished product was breathtaking. Lotus founder Colin Chapman remarked to Miletich that the new Parnelli VPJ-4 was the car he wished he could have built. With sleek lines, it was powered by a 3.0L/480 HP Ford Cosworth DFV engine mated to a 5-speed Hewland manual gearbox and was designed to run on Firestone tires.
Unfortunately, just as the car seemed ready to show in race-winning form, Firestone decided that it would pull out of racing. That meant the car now needed to be modified to accommodate Goodyear tires instead. For a car that was specifically designed all along to run on Firestones, it was a big ask. It also meant the primary source of funding for the Vel’s Parnelli Jones Formula One team was now out of the picture.
Undaunted, Miletich and Jones decided to move ahead with the project. It would be up to Dilamarter to make it work. The Parnelli VPJ-4 had incredible potential, as shown by the series of top five finishes in 1975 on Goodyear tires.
In the end, losing Firestone as well as never landing a major corporate sponsor for the effort proved to be a death blow to the team. With Miletich and Jones funding the project out of their own pockets, despite the incredible promise shown, it was a plan that proved unsustainable. A couple of races into the 1976 season, the team was shuttered.
Andretti moved on to the Lotus Formula One team, where he went on to win 11 races from the final round of the 1976 calendar through becoming the 1978 World Champion. Jones brought the Cosworth engine to Indy Car racing, added a turbocharger and formed a new DFX specification. Cosworth went on to dominate Indy Car racing for more than 10 years with the DFX. The VPJ-4 ideas were ultimately utilized on the new John Barnard-designed VPJ-6 Indy Car, a chassis that went on to win 15 races with the likes of Danny Ongais, Al Unser and A.J. Foyt. In fact, Foyt would go on to conquer his final Indy Car championship at the wheel of a Parnelli VPJ-6 chassis.
Today, the Parnelli VPJ-4 Chassis 4/002 has been restored by the world renowned Phil Reilly Company and will be offered for sale at Mecum’s May 14–22 Original Spring Classic Indy sale. This is a machine that held untold promise, one that likely could have been developed into a championship-winning machine. Finished in blue and white paint, with an American flag and a big No. 27 on the high airbox, the VPJ-4 looks just as ready to conquer the track today as it did when Mario Andretti was at the wheel 46 years ago.