2007 Saleen Parnelli Jones Edition Mustang
It was a dream assignment; go drive the latest Saleen Mustang with Parnelli Jones, the legendary race car driver. As you can see in the pictures, this Saleen looks very much like the storied #15 Parnelli Jones Trans Am Boss 302 Mustang of 1970.
The invitation is clear. Jump in the 2007 Saleen/Parnelli Jones Limited Edition and you can answer the question we all asked hot shoe drivers when we were kids - in my case: " who do you think you are, Parnelli Jones?"
Everybody knows Parnelli. He drove a Boss 302 Mustang to a Trans Am sedan racing championship for Ford in 1970, among myriad other feats in the motor sports world, including Indy, Baja racing - in fact, the Petersen Automotive Museum and The Checkered Flag 200 in downtown Los Angeles honored Parnelli with "An Evening with Parnelli Jones" on Thursday, November 9, 2006. We attended that party as a warm-up to our drive. We heard such luminaries as Carroll Shelby, Al Unser Sr, and Mario Andretti tell old war stories about Parnelli's illustrious career.
Meanwhile, an hour's drive south of LA on the 405 freeway in Irvine, the main fun lay ahead. The address of 76 Fairbanks is home to Saleen, Inc. and another racing legend, Steve Saleen.
At 8 am, we arrived at Saleen to find a half-dozen PJ (Parnelli Jones) Mustangs neatly angle parked for our viewing enjoyment. What was almost scary was how closely the 2007 model looked like the original 1970 Parnelli Jones Trans Am championship Mustang.
After a tour of the manufacturing facility, including production of the 250 MPH plus S7 super car, I got talking with Parnelli. First, how do you approach a legend? Actually, Parnelli is a real down-to-earth sort of person. His handshake will rearrange one's fingers - it's a bone-crusher. At 73 years of age, the man looks like he could race. In fact, he still does vintage race. I wanted to know how this new limited edition Saleen came about. Actually, it was his desire to drive a '70 Boss 302 for fun on the street that launched the '07 Saleen PJ Edition.
"What happened is I was restoring this '70 Mustang. In fact, it was at the show [Petersen Automotive Museum] last night. I'm just now finishing it. But, before I started restoring, I was driving it, and you forget how antiquated the '70 Mustang was. And I said to myself, 'Gee, this isn't going to be that much fun to drive.'"
PJ has driven racecars for Saleen. Steve related the '87 Saleen championship season when both Parnelli Jones and Parnelli's former teammate George Folmer helped Saleen capture the SCCA championship for driver, team and manufacturer.
Jones lives in Palos Verdes, which is not so far from Irvine. He gathered up a bunch of pictures of his old race car and drove down to Saleen. He asked to buy a Saleen to "paint up like my Trans Am car."
Instead, Steve saw potential in building a series of them. Parnelli took an active part in developing the package along the lines of configuring it "as much like my '70 Trans Am car as was possible."
Later, here I am blasting down Southern California back roads in the brand new PJ Saleen, complete with #15 roundels on the doors. Parnelli is riding in the passenger seat. We're chatting. The '07 is so hot, I can't help but ask the obvious question, "So, could this street car outrun the old #15 racecar?"
"We were just talking about that very question, Steve and I, and I don't really know the answer," Parnelli said.
You might laugh, but performance has come a long way in the last 37 years. Handling-wise, Parnelli mentioned both cars had a Watts link in the rear suspension. In 1970, the street Boss came with a rear stabilizer bar and staggered shocks (one ahead and one behind the rear axle). A Watts link was exotic racecar stuff. Now, you get it on the Saleen.