Big Oly returns to Baja at the NORRA Mexican 1000

On April 29, 2021, the Big Oly Bronco will return to the deserts of Baja California with intentions to race and reflect.  That is news no one ever thought would ever happen again. With PJ Jones at the wheel of his father’s iconic machine, the Big Oly Bronco will take part in the NORRA Mexican 1000 in the Safari Class. PJ Jones and Willie Stroppe have been named the Grand Marshalls of the event. Both sons of off-road racing royalty who have direct ties to the Big Oly Bronco.

Parnelli Jones and Bill Stroppe on their way to their first Mexican 1000 victory in 1971. Photo Courtesy of Parnelli Jones

After a horrific accident in the 1974 Baja 500, Jones retired Big Oly to the car show circuit as part of his personal collection of vehicles. It was not uncommon to see Big Oly parked outside any one of Parnelli’s Firestone tire stores.

In 2021 Parnelli Jones did the unthinkable; The Big Oly Bronco was put up for auction in Indianapolis. Speculation ran rampant over the price Big Oly could amass. Most assumed it would surely fetch over a million dollars. On the day of the auction, Mechum Auctions announced the sale at $1.87 million dollars. The name of the buyer was kept private for a long time after the sale.

Where Does Big Oly Live Nowadays?

It is now known that Trousdale Ventures founder and CEO Phillip Sarofim is the new owner of off-road racing’s most iconic machine. Rumor is he will co-drive with PJ Jones in the Safari Class, which is not really a race per se, but a paced tour that traces parts of the Mexican 1000 course. Even at a reduced pace seeing Big Oly’s dust plume on a desert road is bound to be awe-inspiring.

When the purchase was announced in May 2021, many worried that some collectors would purchase it and store it as an investment. It was an unfounded concern as a few weeks after the sale the Big Oly Bronco showed up in Malibu, California, at a Cars and Coffee event. Even though no one still knew who the owner was. But there was Big Oly at some car shows and eventually the 2021 SEMA Show in Las Vegas.

The Big Oly Bronco on display at the 2019 SEMA Show in Las Vegas. Photo by John Elkin

What Is The Connection With This Guy Who Bought It And The NORRA 1000?

Phillip Sarofim is 35 years old and hails from Texas. His father is Egyptian businessman Fayez Shalaby Sarofim, who among other holdings co-owns the NFL Houston Texans. His mother was tragically killed in 2000 while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Sarofim is a graduate of Rice University, a philanthropist, a cancer survivor, and CEO founder of his aforementioned investment company.

Sarofim is on the board of several companies including Yellowbird Foods and Ziften Technologies. His own company deals in renewable energy, software security, and financial security. Above that, he also has started dealing in revenue ramping chances. He recently purchased Meyers Manx from Bruce and Winnie Meyers. Big Oly is listed as being entered into the NORRA Mexican 1000 by Meyers Manx Racing of Costa Mesa, California. Sarofim is a bonafide vintage off-road race car guy and that is cool with us!

The History Of Big Oly And Why It Is So Important.

If you were to trace the true beginning, then you would have to point to Ray Brock’s 1967 Christmas Party. The editor of Hot Rod Magazine threw a big party every year.  Anyone who was anyone in Southern California car culture was there. Since Brock and his long-time friend Ak Miller had just won the passenger car class in the inaugural NORRA Mexican 1000 talk turned to off-road racing.

Two men attending the party were Bill Stroppe, Ford’s choice to head the Bronco racing program, and Parnelli Jones, who needs no introduction. One of these men had a motive to stay close to Parnelli. The talk of the new kind of racing was the wedge Stroppe needed to put his plan into action. He wanted Parnelli in a Bronco.

The short version is that Stroppe challenged Jones to drive one of his Bronco’s in the upcoming Mint 400. Jones declined to say that he had enough bouncing and dust in his midget days. Stroppe then made a comment about Jones not being tough enough to handle it anyway. It was a calculated move by Stroppe, but it worked. He had his driver.

1969 Ford Bronco Big Oly Parnelli Jones

The Big Oly Pedigree And What It Took To Win The NORRA 1000

Throughout 1968 and part of 1969 Stroppe tried to get Jones to slow down enough to keep his Bronco in one piece enough to finish a race. All attempts failed. Finally, Stroppe and his chief fabricator, Dick Russell decided to build a modified Bronco that should be Parnelli-proof. It was dubbed the Colt and it was a miracle of innovation in 1969. Even still, as tough as it was built, the Colt could not entirely handle the task of surviving Jones’s right foot.

By sheer chance, Jones was at the Stroppe shop when a canceled Bronco two-wheel-drive kit car arrived from Detroit. It was a stock Bronco frame but fitted with a Ford truck twin I-Beam suspension. Jones got excited and asked Stroppe to build it into a racer. It was called the Pony. Jones and Stroppe won the 1970 Baja 500 with it and broke the course record by hours.

Bill Stroppe poses in front of The Pony. The Pony gave Parnelli his first win at the 1970 Baja 500. More importantly, it served as the inspiration for the Big Oly Bronco. Photo Courtesy of Larry Minor

The Pony was faster and tougher, but Jones wanted more. During lunch, with Dick Russell, they sketched out a space frame racer so it would not be limited by the stock Bronco frame like the Pony. Russell started building the car in his garage at home and it was dubbed the Crazy Colt. The Crazy Colt needed that Stroppe touch. The truck was brought in under the Stroppe shop after some heated exchanges about the project.

In 1970 before it was Big Oly, it was called the Crazy Colt. Photo Courtesy of Parnelli Jones

Big Oly Wins The NORRA 1000

Big Oly became Big Oly in 1971. Olympia Beer paid Jones $10,000 to be the primary sponsor. Interestingly enough the wins started after Olympia Beer came on board. Back-to-back Mexican NORRA 1000s, a Mint 400, a Baja 500, and other wins were earned.

The importance of Big Oly has many different facets. First, it was the first off-road racing victory by an Indy 500-winning driver. Second, it was something completely different for its time and influenced off-road racing engineering not just for years, but for decades. Every one of those 1,200 horsepower, three-foot of wheel travel monsters that reign in today’s desert races can call Big Oly its Grandfather.

What Was In Big Oly That Made It So Special?

Besides the fabrication genius of Dick Russell and the cagey vehicle optimizing skills of Bill Stroppe, this machine was advanced for the era. Let’s start with a 351 cubic inch Windsor V-8 engine topped with a high-rise manifold and a Holley 750 CFM double pumper carburetor. Inside the block was an Isky racing cam and polished and massaged crankshaft and rods. Behind the block sits a heavy-duty Ford C-6 automatic transmission. They had started with a C-4, but it became evident that Big Oly needed more.

Under the fiberglass skin, laid a tube frame chassis that sat on modified twin I-Beam suspension. A Ford nine-inch rear end was modified to handle the extra power that the stock Bronco’s and even the Pony did not have. Inside the cockpit, the transmission shifter was from a Ford Mustang. The air filter was positioned in the cockpit to ensure clean air to the engine.

1969 Ford Bronco Big Oly Parnelli Jones

That big, beautiful wing was an engineering marvel of its day. Not simply affixed to the roll cage, it was hinged, and Stroppe could change the angle of the wing to suit the speed they were traveling at the time, over 30 degrees worth of angle. But wait, there is more. Driving lights were installed on the leading edge of the wing for those long Baja nights.

Follow The Safari To See Big Oly Racing The NORRA 1000!

Lucky for you we live in an age where news, photos, and videos come out of Baja almost instantaneously. Back in the 1970s, you had to wait for telegrams to be wired from the finish line outpost, and race results to be printed in nationally distributed newspapers. In today’s modern world you can simply sign up to receive daily updates emailed directly from NORRA. You only have to subscribe to the race organizer’s free email subscription. To follow Big Oly at the NORRA 1000, we also recommend keyboard racing with the online off-road community at Race Dezert.com. Additionally, every social media platform should have a lot of content once the event starts and throughout its five-day schedule. Try hashtags such as #BigOly #Mexican 1000 #NORRA and #PJJones.

More About Big Oly?

The Parnelli Jones autobiography “As a matter of fact I am Parnelli Jones” is a good place to learn about Big Oly and its original owner. There is a new book coming out in Spring called Bronco Racing that can be pre-ordered now. If you can find a copy, the Bill Stroppe book called “Boss” is a wonderful read about racing of all kinds from the 1940s through the 1980s. Also try bajabronco.com for some great stories by Todd Zuercher.

About the author

John Elkin

John Elkin was born into an off-roading family. Most vacations were spent exploring Death Valley. Later, John found off-road racing, then rally. His competition career spanned 35 years, mostly navigating. John lives in Vancouver, WA. with his family.
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