Skip to comments.NHRA Founder Wally Parks Dead at 94
Posted on 09/29/2007 5:52:07 AM PDT by flattorney
Wally Parks, the driving force behind the National Hot Rod Association, died Sept. 28 at the age of 94."An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in a collection of essays 166 years ago. He could have been talking about the NHRA. Emerson's quote was stitched on a quilt presented to Parks by Louise McClelland, wife of longtime NHRA announcer Dave McClelland, at Parks 90th birthday party four years ago. Parks' shadow stretched much taller than his six-foot four-inch frame across drag racing, lakes racing, automotive publishing and the aftermarket speed parts industry.
Parks was born in Oklahoma in 1913 and took pride in his humble roots, always referring to himself as an Okie. He was eight years old when his family moved west, and he remained in Southern California for the rest of his life. While the rest of the world progressed to e-mail, Parks stayed with faxes, which he called, "Oakie e-mail." Parks helped to found the Southern California Timing Association in 1937 to organize dry lakes racing. Then, like most of the racers, he went into the military during WWII. He served in the Philippines where he was said to have the fastest Jeep in the Pacific. It was during the war that Parks first heard the term hot rod. Parks returned home in 1946 and was, naturally, elected president of the SCTA.
Parks, along with future publishing magnate Pete Petersen and fellow rodder Lee Ryan (who looked the oldest among them, they decided, and therefore the most respectable) made the first pilgrimage to Utah to convince the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce to let the Southern California kids run on the Bonneville Salt Flats. They took Petersens car because they didnt think Ryans or Parks cars would make it. They made it, and racers have journeyed to Bonneville ever since. In 1948 Parks and Petersen organized a speed parts show in the Los Angeles Armory that would go on to fame, many years later, as the SEMA show held now in Las Vegas. That same year Parks became editor of a magazine Petersen started called Hot Rod. In 1951, Parks, Ak Miller and Marvin Lee signed the incorporation papers that founded the National Hot Rod Association. Naturally, Parks was its president.
The NHRA's original goals were very close to today's: adopt and maintain the strictest safety standards in motorsports, establish rules governing the sport and educate the public about drag racing; nobody had ever done anything like it before. At the time it was very much necessary. Drag racing before the NHRA wasn't too far from what you see in B movies late at night with titles like "Drag Strip Demons." With the exception of dry lakes racers at Southern California Timing Association events, the kids who raced on America's back roads and empty city streets usually had more enthusiasm than good judgment, drove questionably constructed cars, and there was generally not a roll bar in sight. It wasn't that racing itself had to be dangerous, just that no one had come along to make it safe or organized. The NHRA took what had existed illegally across the country and molded it into something safe and presentable without removing any of the elements that made it fun. The task was equal parts public relations and organization. It took off.
Nobody had any illusion it would become as big as it has, Parks said. It is now the world's most participated-in motorsport, and it was the strength of Parks' character more than anything else that shaped the sport and the organization. That character showed through in subtle ways, as Parks guided and mentored the NHRA with a nudge here, an offer of help there. His constant and humble support of the people he brought in is what made the NHRA such a success. Parks recruited smart, dedicated men and women and gave them the backing they needed to grow the sport. "We were fortunate, we picked people who were actively interested in the sport, and whose wives were actively interested in it," Parks said when NHRA celebrated its 50th anniversary six years ago. "In many cases, the wife was the better part of the bargain," he added jokingly. His enthusiasm and integrity spread.
"Because of what Wally started, [drag racing] grew and came to Texas," said West Texas-born, NHRA legend Kenny Bernstein at Parks 90th birthday party. "Because of Wally's vision, I was able to make it my life." "Wally's made it possible for a lot of us to make a living in a field that we love," said Carroll Shelby on the same night. Whenever Parks was honored, and it happened a lot throughout his life, he typically took no credit. At his 94th birthday last March, held at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, Parks said, "There's been an awful lot of praise of Wally Parks today, and I'd like you to think of where we'd all be if it was just Wally Parks. There's an awful lot of people doing an awful lot of work."
Which reminded us of another line Emerson wrote, as if thinking ahead nearly two centuries: "If the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him." The huge world came round to the man from Oklahoma.
Smoke ‘em on the big track, Guy.
Hot Rod Magazine—————The mag a lot of us waited for anxiously back in the 50’s — Iskandarian etc etc etc ....
Ah, hot rodding. The great American hobby. And profession for some, thanks to people like Wally Parks.
Bump and a prayer for Mr Parks family.
A fine man indeed!
Bet it`s going to be a LOT of people at Richmond next week end,what
with Johns accident and now Wally Parks
Never been to that track before, we`re gonna be there.
Wally made NHRA.
Rest in Peace Wally. Your footprint left behid on the sport of Drag Racing will never be forgotten.