The advantages of four-wheel drive had been shown in 1967 and George Bignotti sought to profit from combining it with the Ford V8 in 1968. He bought a single four-wheel drive Lola with Ford V8 power for owner, Al Retzlaff, to be driven by Al Unser. It was this car.
In the 500 Unser qualified the 4WD Lola outside the second row in sixth position but crashed on lap 40 when a spindle broke. After being repaired in England it returned in time for the USAC road course race at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Unser proved his versatility by winning both ends of the two-heat feature. His victory came just a week after taking his first USAC Championship victory on the dirt at Nazareth. He followed up on these wins with another victory later in the season at Langhorne.
A major development in 1969 was the foundation of the Vel’s Parnelli Jones Ford team. With backing from Ford and Firestone Vel Miletich and Parnelli Jones set up their own team, buying out Al Retzlaff and acquiring along with his Lola-Fords the services of legendary chief mechanic George Bignotti, his co-chief Jim Dilamarter and driver Al Unser. The objective was not only to dominate USAC racing in North America but also to race competitively in international grands prix, carrying the Firestone banner into territory dominated by Goodyear.
USAC had reacted to the perceived advantages of 4-wheel drive by restricting them to just 10-inch tire widths, effectively robbing the promising but expensive technology of its advantage and not incidentally protecting the installed base of USAC car owners. Bignotti and Dilamarter converted this car, wearing USAC #3 signifying Al Unser’s 1968 driving championship standing, to rear wheel drive with side-mounted fuel cells and the distinctive “coal chute” rear decks feeding air to rear-mounted oil coolers.
Recognizing the extent of the modifications, it was renamed the Vel’s Parnelli Jones Special.
In its first race at Phoenix, Al put the Vel’s Parnelli Jones Special on the pole but the Ford dropped a valve on lap 14 while in the lead. After Hanford on April 13 the show headed for Indianapolis for the month of May.
It rained, and rained some more throughout the first week of qualifying. Unser was fast, but broke his leg in a motorcycle accident while waiting for the weather to clear. This car was turned over the veteran Bud Tingelstad who qualified 18th and was classified 15th when a Ford valve again let the team down on the 155th lap. Jim Malloy qualified and finished second with it in the Rex Mays Classic at the Milwaukee Mile, then seventh at Langhorne with Rislone sponsorship. Unser crashed in practice for the 151-mile road course race at Continental Divide on July 6, taking over Malloy’s #15 car for the feature but dropped out with a broken suspension.
Al capped this car’s season with a win from the pole at Phoenix on November 15, finishing second in the driver’s championship to Mario Andretti, a remarkable accomplishment considering that after his motorcycle accident at Indy he had only 19 starts to Andretti’s 24.
For 1970 the Lola-based Vel’s Parnelli Jones Special was again modified with aerodynamic improvements and changed its identity yet again to “Lola-Colt.” Bignotti and Dilamarter built two more cars using this proven and highly developed car as the pattern. They were known as “P.J. Colts”.
Miletich and Jones signed Topper Toys as the team’s season-long sponsor. Its dramatic “Johnny Lightning” blue with bold yellow lightning bolts outlined in red has become one of racing’s most recognized and brilliant liveries.
For the 1970 season this car became Al Unser’s entry on short paved ovals and road courses on his way to a legendary season in which he would win ten of 18 starts including the Indy 500, record 15 top-5 finishes and capture eight poles. It was close to total domination and set Al Unser on his way to his total of four Indy 500 wins.
With this car he won at Phoenix in the season opener, at Indianapolis Raceway Park in July, the Tony Bettenhausen 200 at Milwaukee in August and the Trenton 300 in October. He was two laps in the lead in the California 500 at Ontario in September when the transmission broke with just 14 laps to go. Other placings include 3rd at Sears Point, 3rd at Trenton, 3rd in the Rex Mays 150 at Milwaukee, 2nd at Langhorne, 5th on the road course at Continental Divide and 2nd at the season-ending race at Phoenix.
The following year Unser’s Indy 500 entry was backed up by this car until it was sold to Leonard Faas and J.C. Agajanian to replace their primary entry which was too slow to qualify. Sammy Sessions put it in the show but dropped out on lap 43 with a broken valve. Sessions also raced it in the Pocono 500 on July 3 where it was classified 11th.
It was retained by Faas in as-raced condition and was acquired in 1978 from his estate by a California farmer who kept it until 2001. Its Ford 4-cam Indy V8 was rebuilt by specialist Joe Beghosian before it was sold in 2002.
After its sale to Faas/Agajanian its distinctive Johnny Lightning livery was unchanged except for covering the distinctive bright yellow lightning bolts with white and redoing the number and other identification over the original livery. After being discovered on the California farm the over-painting was carefully cleaned and the correct and original Johnny Lightning paint scheme uncovered and preserved. After the car came into the present owner’s collection Joe Beghosian started the engine and conducted a confirmatory test run of the drive train. The shut down and preservation included a meticulous pickling of the methanol fuel system to prevent corrosion. The only departure from its original condition is believed to be the absence of the original shoulder straps.
After extensive research and investigation, Lola Heritage has issued a new ID plate with its original chassis number T-150-02 along with a letter authenticating its origin.
The Lola-Ford/Vel’s Parnelli Jones Special/Lola Colt is a rare, important survivor of the era. It started the Indianapolis 500 three times. Its history as the contributor of 2,930 points to Al Unser’s historic total of 5,130 points in 1970 marks it as one of the most important USAC Championship cars of its, or any, period. The runner-up in 1970, Al’s big brother Bobby, scored a total of just 2,260 points. On that basis – without the reasonable “what ifs” – Al could have won the championship just with the points from T-150-02.
Most professional racing cars of the late Sixties and Seventies have been driven and modified until they are barely recognizable shells of their historic condition and appearance. Its bright, aggressive Johnny Lightning livery is one of the most distinctive and memorable in USAC history. Its condition, originality and preservation are simply extraordinary.