I first met Wally Parks at the Bonne-ville Salt Flats in either l949 or l950. That began an ongoing relationship that lasted for nearly 60 years, and earned me the privilege of intimately knowing a man who history will regard with the highest accolades.
Born in Oklahoma of mixed-blood Cherokee heritage, the l920s found Wally growing up in rural Southern California, at the very cusp of an emerging automotive mania. Cars were early on a signal of SoCal existence, an awareness eagerly explored by the gangly teenager and his brother, Kenny. Because he was so much a part of the flowering hot rod sport, Wally naturally gravitated toward the stripped-down jalopies, taking part in loosely organized speed trials on the California desert dry lakes. He drove his own creations as well as those of the wider hot rod fraternity.
Early on, it was evident that Wally's genuine interest in all things mechanical and his quick appreciation for engineering would serve him very well in a time when America was coming in from the farm. In addition, Wally had good sense around the business world and a lanky frame that wore fashionable clothing well. No wonder, then, that when the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) was born, Wally would become secretary and front man. It is what helped him to see beyond the walls of a small but active hot rod fraternity and envision what could be-all this happening well prior to the start of World War II
This is a recreation of Wally's...
This is a recreation of Wally's '29 Ford highboy roadster sitting in front of the bronze statue of him in front of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum at Fairplex in Pomona, CA.
It was during those pre-WWII years that Wally forged ties with people who would come to be the foundation of the hot rod parts manufacturing and supply industry, indeed the very automotive performance sport itself.
Yet Wally was not all honey and spice; he could be tough as nails when needed, but he took great pains to keep the need well in the background. This is the quality that served so admirably with the creation and maintenance of the National Hot Rod Association. It has been rightly observed that Wally took a dirty T-shirt and Levi's hobby, dressed it with white shirt and tie, and put it front and center in the corporate world.
During the war years, Wally was dispatched to the South Pacific; familiar with tanks (he drove them onto rail cars from an assembly plant), he ended up in the Army motor pool. During those years, he kept in contact with hot rodders back home, especially with Veda Orr (see page 144 for more on Mrs. Orr), so he stepped immediately into his old habits on discharge. Then the SCTA began to think about a hot rod show as a public relations gambit. In reality, it was Wally thinking about public relations. It was from this initial show, and the subsequent need for a show program, that brought Wally together with a struggling PR man named Robert "Pete" Petersen. Of course, the two knew each other since Pete had been shooting photographs at the dry lakes near his Barstow hometown. That show program idea grew to become Hot Rod magazine, and Wally came to be the HRM editor.
Earlier times with Wally sitting...
Earlier times with Wally sitting in his highboy. Wally Parks' name would become synonymous with hot rodding itself in following decades.
It was from this magazine platform that Wally could begin his dream of spreading the hot rod gospel, as well as directing a subtle program for hot-rod driving safety. The NHRA was the second step in the process, with car clubs the catalyst. Drag racing was in the wings, but it didn't really debut nationwide until Wally sent the original Drag Safari on the road in the mid-l950s.
During the '50s, Wally was meeting and extending his hot rod message through such diverse avenues as the Army and Air Force, the AAA national automobile club, varied local, state, and national political leaders, and law enforcement agencies at all levels. Yet, even as his own list of VIP associates grew, he never forgot the average hot rodder. He loved to visit with car people, and his secret obsession was visiting car wrecking yards. Many were the times he would show up unannounced on a Saturday morning and ask my wife, Pegge, if I could come out and play, whereupon we would take off for some obscure California scrap yard he had heard of.
By the early l960s, it was evident that the new "suits" that had been brought in to spread the business world into Petersen Publishing were not exactly a good fit in the hot rodding environment. Wally dropped out of PPC to spend all his time with the NHRA. The association had always been a struggle, financially, until recent years. Those were trying times during the '60s and '70s for the NHRA, and for Wally. Still, he prevailed, buoyed by his deep-rooted belief in the American hot rodding spirit.
Wally, you will be missed...
Wally, you will be missed!
When I finally came onboard the Hot Rod magazine staff in l957, Detroit was beginning to realize how well performance could sell a car. Our staff included Wally at the front, Bob Greene as our managing editor, Eric Rickman as photographer and super garage sleuth, Tom Medley in the advertising slot, Ray Brock as technical guru, and me. We well knew that the era of drag racing stardom for factory super stocks was just around the corner, which is what led Wally and I to decide that I would keep the traditional type of hot rod well represented in the pages of HRM. This decision is what ultimately led to the separation of drag racing into its own focus, and street rodding into the present. As always, Wally was way ahead of the pack.
There is so much more-so very much more that historians will eventually chronicle about Wally Parks, the Oklahoma farm boy who went west and did good. I'm thankful he persisted in referring to me as his "other son," in respect to Richard and David. In every way, Wally Parks was the gracious host of the entire hot rod sport to the entire world. How lucky we have all been because of him.
Wally Parks' Lifetime Achievements
1937 Parks takes part in the formation of the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA)-an organization focused on conducting land speed record events-serving as one of its officials until World War II begins.
1946 Parks is elected president of the reorganized SCTA following military service in the South Pacific.
1947 Parks leaves General Motors after 10 years of employment as a road test driver and process engineer to assume a new role as the SCTA's general manager.
1948 Parks' conceptualization helps produced America's first Hot Rod Show, presented by the SCTA at the Los Angeles Exposition Armory. That same year, Parks helps co-publishers Bob Petersen and Bob Lindsay with the introduction of Hot Rod magazine and is later named its first editor.
1949 Parks organizes the campaign leading to the opening of Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats for hot rod speed trials.
1951 Parks forms the National Hot Rod Association, utilizing Hot Rod as a conduit to nationwide readership.
1962-1972 Parks is voted Man of the Decade by Popular Hot Rodding magazine.
1963 Parks resigns his position as editorial director for all of Petersen's automotive magazines-Hot Rod, Motor Trend, Car Craft, Sports Car Graphic, and Motor Life-to assume full-time administrative duties as president of the NHRA.
1973 The Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) recognizes Parks as Man of the Year.
1988 & '94 The American Auto Racing Writers & Broadcasters Association (AARWBA) honors Parks for his pioneering efforts in motorsports.
1992 Parks is drag racing's first inductee into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, AL.
1993 Parks is inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in Novi, MI.
1994 A large bronze statue of Parks is presented at NHRA's Gainesville Raceway, which is eventually moved to its current location in front of the NHRA Motorsports Museum at Fairplex in Pomona, CA. That same year, Parks and wife Barbara are co-inductees into the Don Garlits International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in Ocala, FL, for their pioneering efforts, which spearheaded NHRA's success. Parks is also the first recipient of the Don Prudhomme Award, a trophy presented by the NHRA to an individual who has made a profound impact on the growth and positive image of the NHRA POWERade Series.
2001 At the NHRA awards ceremony, Parks is presented with the prestigious Blaine Johnson Award for his dedication, perseverance, and nurturing commitment to the sport throughout the years.
2002 Parks again is recognized for his many contributions to the sport of drag racing. He is presented with the inaugural Robert E. Petersen Lifetime Achievement Award at the 4th annual Hot Rod & Performance Trade Show in Indianapolis. The late Petersen, a renowned automotive publisher and creator of multiple automotive magazines, then presented Parks with the all-bronze sculpture, created to honor the entrepreneurs who have contributed to the history, growth, and well-being of the hot rod industry.
Late 2003 Parks receives another honor of distinction, as he is named the Dean Batchelor Lifetime Achievement Award winner by the Motor Press Guild in Los Angeles, CA.
Recent Years Parks remained on NHRA's board of directors and dedicated much of his time to his personal involvement with the cultivation and expansion of The Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum at Fairplex in Pomona until his passing.
Visit the NHRA's Web site, www.nhra.com, for more information.