Chuck Jones Samsonite Special
There are hobbies, then there are HOBBIES. Chuck Jones’ preoccupation would definitely fall in the latter category. He’s successfully restored and is about to debut one of Indy’s racings treasures, The Samsonite Special, originally built by Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing in 1972.
How did Chuck Jones go from being a young race fan, to participating as a junior racer, and finally to proud owner and restoration specialist in adulthood of spectacular and historic racing cars? For Jones, it seems a logical progression.
“I probably went to races regularly starting at around age 8 with my father, although I’ve been told that I actually attended my first Indy 500 at 6 months of age. But I don't remember much about that one.” Jones said recently. “”Although I wasn't from a racing family, I grew up with the sport. It was captivating to see the cars and drivers. Then I went on to race go karts myself. I also raced half midgets, 3/4 midgets, sprint cars, formula 4 and so on. I was at the track every chance I could get. It was clear that I loved everything about that atmosphere. “
Growing up on a farm in Indiana, Jones also became comfortable with the demands of fabrication equipment early on.
“By age ten I could run a lathe and do a decent weld. I was fascinated by how things came apart then came together again. I loved to discover how things worked. It was all a part of being on in a rural environment from a young age. You had to be familiar with machinery.”
Added to this early mechanical mix was the fact that Jones was both a self described overachiever and 'tended to have OCD particularities'.
“I was definitely driven to succeed” Jones said. “I had a double major at Purdue, in Human Factors Engineering and Industrial Design, then after undergrad was over, I continued in the Cornell Graduate Executive Program, eventually ending up as Chief Design Officer of Intuitive Surgical in Silicon Valley. That is the company that makes the DaVinci surgical robots.”
In his spare time, Jones restored and raced fine vintage cars.
“It was a great break from the grind of work. It was a logical process, a progression form my long ago fascination with race cars. To use my free time finding and fixing these cars? It sure beat golf. There was nothing better I could be doing, in my opinion.” Jones said. “Bringing back the original beauty of these machines has been wonderful. I take pride in finding them a proper home where they will be loved and appreciated not only by me, but by vintage racing fans.’
Jones describes his journey as ‘a play in three acts’.
“I find these cars, I restore them, I race them. Each aspect of this process has its special qualities.”
It all begins with hard research, something that Jones definitely enjoys,
“Tracking down the cars in the first place is almost like being a detective. I’m patient in my quest to find details. Where can I search? Who do I know who might know something about this car? I consider myself an automotive archaeologist. You have to know where to look, how to chase down leads. What is the car’s history? How did it get from Point A to Point B?“
But finding the car is just the beginning of an arduous process, often consuming years or work.
“The restoration process itself requires perfection, which fits right into my natural tendencies. I want everything to be as it once was-the cars, the helmets, the drivers’ uniforms. Its something that can’t be rushed, Everything must be absolutely correct. I often consult with the drivers who raced in a particular era, with the mechanics, with the original builders if possible.”
And the reward for all this work? A return to the track.
“ The racing part is self explanatory. These cars were built to race. There’s nothing better than hearing an engine rev up for the first time in 20 or more years.That’s what this is all about. I can’t describe the satisfaction when a car has been returned to its original purpose.”
Jones was able to locate the Samsonite Special’s original driver, Joe Leonard, in a Sunnyvale, CA assisted living facility which was relatively close to Jones’ Silicon Valley condo.
“Joe was in failing health” Jones said. “I tried to visit him as often as I could to show him photos of the restoration of the car he once drove. He’d offer great anecdotes that had a tremendous impact on my understanding and appreciation of the car. Unfortunately Joe passed away recently, shortly before the restoration was complete. Although he was not able to see the car on a track again, I think and I hope it brought him enjoyment to know that not only had his car been found, but that it was being brought back to life.”
Barring a ‘mechanical disaster’, always a possibility according to Jones, the fully restored Samsonite Special will be on display at the Indy Legends Day event to be held at the track May 24 through May 27.
For further information on this spectacular car, please go to VintageIndyRegistry.com.