Author: Jim Ober Photos: Trackside Photo
It was the 1971 Mexican 1000 and Parnelli Jones and his co-driver Bill Stroppe were on their way to setting a new record time, one that still holds to this day and will never be beat. The reason for this is that it was one of the last Baja races that was run on an open course. You could take any trail you wanted as long as you made the eight or so checkpoints along the way. All other races since 1974 have been on a marked course, with little or no deviation allowed.
This way of running a race allowed for some creative thinking, but for the most part Highway 1 was the main route to La Paz, with side excursions along the way that could be faster. The only real map of Baja at that time was the official AAA glovebox fold-up map for tourists, which left a lot to be desired, especially if you were lost in Baja at night.
The Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame, which inducted both PJ and Stroppe into its ranks, said of PJ’s driving style: “Jones and Stroppe had to find a way to keep their vehicles in one piece. During races Jones would push the vehicles at maximum speed until they gave way, with Stroppe telling him at top volume the entire time to take it easier on the vehicle.” The radical new “Big Oly” was a solution to that problem.
Named after its main sponsor, Olympia Beer, the Bronco was a technological wonder of the day. It was built and race-prepped to IndyCar standards by Dick Russell, an old Champ Car guy, and sported innovations such as multiple progressive-rate shocks at each wheel, a first for off-road vehicles. The Bronco was powered by a 351 cubic-inch, 390 horsepower, Ford Windsor V8 engine with a four-barrel carburetor, coupled to a C6 Ford automatic transmission by B&M Hydro. Top speed was said to be a brisk 150 mph.
A few weeks before this race, Bill Stroppe talked about a new innovation to a reporter and photographer from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. “This helps us navigate the Baja racecourse, especially at night,” said Stroppe. It was a backlit lightbox with a map of the racecourse, complete with danger spots, on a continuous scroll of paper that was about 50 feet long. “Trouble is, I don’t know if I can crank if fast enough to keep up with Parnelli,” Stroppe continued.
The day before the 1971 race, PJ and San Nicolas Hotel owner Nico Saad were talking about how long it would take PJ to finish the race. “Oh, about 15 hours,” PJ quipped. It was a very ambitious prediction.
On race day the motorcycles started an hour before the cars, and at about Mile 100, motorcycle racer Bob Brownell was limping his Husky 400 backward back to Camalu, the first checkpoint. He had badly damaged his back tire and rim due to incorrect tire pressure.
“I saw Parnelli coming, so I moved about 20 feet off the racecourse. The noise was ungodly, something we weren’t used to at all in off-road racing. He went by in a big cloud of dust, and I was buried in a cloud for what seemed a minute. I was afraid of someone else coming down course and running into me,” said Brownell of the experience.
Like chariots of the gods, the Big Oly Bronco continued breathing fire and dust all the way to La Paz, beating all compeititors by a wide margin. PJ’s prediction was only one minute off. It took him and Stroppe only 14 hours and 59 minutes to complete the 800-mile or so course from Ensenada to La Paz. A record that holds to this day.
EPILOGUE: PJ had major wins in the 1973 season. He won his second Mexican 1000 in 16 hours and 42 minutes, and also won the 1973 Baja 500 and Mint 400 off-road events. But PJ had a major accident at SCORE International’s 1974 Baja 500, and stepped away from full-time off-road racing to become a race car owner.
Vaya Con Dios from the Staff of Dirt Sports