The Ultimate Modern Classic
Fans show enthusiasm for their favorites in many different ways. T-shirts and banners proclaiming loyalty to a given racer or team might constitute the ground floor of fanship. Face or body paint could be considered the second level. In the case of Marshall Madruga and his enthusiasm for the Big Oly Bronco and driver Parnelli Jones, Marshall took the proverbial elevator all the way through the top floor and blasted through the roof.
For those who may not remember or who’ve never gotten their hands on Marty Fiolka’s book 1000 Miles to Glory: The History of the Baja 1000, here’s a little background info. Parnelli Jones piloted the “Big Oly” Bronco to back-to-back Baja 1000 wins in 1971 and 1972. “Big Oly” was no ordinary Bronco, and of course Jones was no ordinary driver. Jones, a premier Indy car driver at the time, was goaded into off-road racing by fabricator Bill Stroppe with some well-targeted taunts during a Christmas party. Not long after, Jones showed up on a starting line behind the wheel of a Stroppe-prepared Bronco. At the time, Stroppe’s shop prepped Broncos by starting with a factory-fresh machine and adding key components and reinforcements—basically the modus operandi of building a stock-class racer today. Jones’s driving prowess soon outpaced the durability of the Bronco, and parts began breaking, especially the Bronco’s solid front axle.
Jones wasn’t about to slow down to “save the truck.” Instead, he decided that the Bronco should be purpose-built to handle the rigors of off-road racing. An interim solution came in the form of a Stroppe-prepped 2WD, Twin I-Beam version of the Bronco. This 2WD, stock-based Bronco worked well enough that Jones claimed top honors in the 1970 Baja 500. Jones knew he was onto something and decided to up the ante.
Parnelli approached Stroppe with the idea of building a tube-framed one-off chassis that would be cloaked by a Bronco-style fiberglass body. Bill Stroppe balked: This was too far a departure from what the Ford factory produced. Jones adopted a “Plan B” and worked with Stroppe employee Dick Russell after hours to make his vision a metallic reality. Eventually, Stroppe came around and joined in on the project. The result was a chromoly tube-framed, TIG-welded, fiberglass-bodied, one-off machine built exclusively to go fast in the dirt. And it did. Driving the Olympia Beer–sponsored Bronco, Jones not only won the Baja 1000 in ’71 and ’72, he handily beat all the motorcycles while he was at it. That’s fast!