The Cool-Down Lap · Doug Turnbull · Monday June 21, 2010
On Sunday, the NASCAR community spent Father’s Day in mourning after losing one of the sport’s founding Fathers. At 96 years old, former car owner Raymond Parks passed away at his home in Atlanta hours before the start of racing at Infineon. No cause of death was initially reported, but here’s what we do know: the passing of this future Hall of Famer closes the book on the sport’s original generation of leaders.
To fans unfamiliar with Parks, a sheer glance at his official NASCAR statistics tell but a fraction of the influence he had on the creation of the sport. Two wins amongst five drivers in 18 races – collected in a four-year time span – are numbers that normally do not deserve a second look. But placed within the context of a fascinating life story, it’s quickly made apparent how special those achievements really are.
Both wins claimed by Parks were in NASCAR’s first official season of 1949, where only eight races were run. Two other top 5s were enough to go with it, handing the sport’s inaugural championship to Parks’ No. 22 Oldsmobile and driver Red Byron. Byron, a crippled war veteran who had to drive racecars with a modified clutch pedal because of a leg maimed in World War II, drove in a style comparable to future champions David Pearson, Bill Elliott, and Matt Kenseth: slow and steady won him the race. And Parks, a distinguished businessman known for being well-dressed and carrying an essence of professionalism, appreciated that type of strategy from his prized driver – especially in light of the outlaw antics performed both in and out of Parks’ racecar by rowdy cousin and driver Roy Hall.
The owner’s stock car success, however, stretched much further back than the NASCAR record books. As NASCAR founder Bill France began driving in and promoting races in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Parks’ cars were always contenders and often winners. France even drove a race for Parks in this stretch. Those close to Parks who have heard the many tales of his past say that he even lent money more than once to Bill Sr., keeping his one-time fledgling career as a racing promoter alive. Though this fact has not officially been confirmed, there is no doubt among those familiar with this era of the sport that NASCAR likely would not be what it is today without his presence.
In recent years, that role has slowly become more recognized, helped by a recent book called Dancing with The Devil which describes the early days of stock car racing in great detail. Sadly, most of those accolades came later than they should have. Suffering heavily from hearing loss and being virtually mute in his later years, Parks was unable to fully enjoy the fanfare around the welcome he received in the early months of 2009, as NASCAR honored him at Daytona in February before getting inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega shortly thereafter.
NASCAR Hall of Fame Historian Buz McKim, as you might expect, is very familiar with the influence this man had on the sport. “Raymond Parks was a true pioneer of NASCAR, who chose to stay in the background as he supplied the sport with its first championship team,” he said. “All NASCAR fans and competitors owe him a huge debt of gratitude for what he brought to the sport.”
Parks, the last living attendee of the famous meeting that formed NASCAR at the Streamline Hotel in December 1947, lived up to his “away from the limelight” persona from the start of the organization. He lurked in the back of the room, sometimes walking out, as France dominated the conversation and incorporated what became “NASCAR” into his own enterprise. In fact, Parks and others involved saw France’s leadership of this stock car body as more of a hostile takeover of the budding sport than an organization. The acronym “NASCAR,” by the way, was coined by Parks’ genius mechanic Red Vogt, who operated one of Parks’ many gas stations around the original “center of stock car racing:” Atlanta.
Parks’ bitterness over the way the sport got structured never died, even as he, Vogt, and Byron won both the first ever NASCAR-sanctioned Modified race and championship in 1948, then followed up with the inaugural “Cup Series” title (the series was then known as strictly stock) one year later. When France penalized Parks and Byron, among others, for running other racing series in 1950, the owner began dialing back his NASCAR involvement, never running the equivalent of a full-time Cup season again.
That explains the pedestrian stats, with Parks holding just a modest collection of records. But 1988 Cup Champion and fellow Georgian Bill Elliott knows that’s far from the only way he had an impact.
“People like Raymond were the backbone of America,” Elliott said Sunday. “To be able to fight in the war, survive that era, and come back and be so instrumental in NASCAR and accomplish the things that he did … I feel that it is a shame that he wasn’t inducted into the [NASCAR] Hall of Fame before he passed away.”
The last part of Elliott’s statement is a sticking point to Parks’ supporters. While the five inductees in May each deserved a place in NASCAR’s revered Hall, many felt that Parks’ deteriorating health and immeasurable influence should at least have garnered him some sort of “legend” or “achievement” enshrinement there. That debate will continue as time presses on, as hopefully will the memories of who he was both inside and outside of racing.
Born in 1914, Parks – the oldest of 16 children – left his home and abusive father in north Georgia to come south to Atlanta and learn the moonshining business with another relative. Parks used his success in both distilling and delivering the banned beverage to catapult him into many other successful endeavors, including an illegal lottery in Atlanta called “the bug,” numerous pinball and cigarette machines (otherwise known as novelty machines, which are what the listed sponsor of Byron’s car was in 1949), service stations, real estate, and liquor stores.
Parks’ illegal business landed him time in jail, but also pushed him to pay Vogt to soup up moonshining automobiles on Spring Street in Downtown Atlanta at “Parks’ Garage.” As was the case with many of early stock car racing’s first cars, Parks’ immaculate, speedy machines made the transition from ‘shine haulers to racecars… though Parks’ profit margin running ‘shine was considerably larger.
And though Parks had a passion for racing and winning, his main concern was his bottom line. After multiple falling outs with Bill France, despite his helping out France on numerous occasions before NASCAR was born into existence, Parks decided after fielding a car for Curtis Turner for five races in the 1955 season he’d had enough. Racing cost too much. So he quit while he was ahead, and settled into the businesses he ran well and made more money with. Never straying far from those roots, Parks owned a liquor store in Northwest Atlanta until the day he died.
Though not the epitome of the stereotypical Bible-thumping Baptist in the Southeast, Raymond Parks’ life resembled that of Paul from the Bible’s New Testament. Paul was shipwrecked, cursed, beaten, and thrown in prison for preaching – all after he killed Christians for a living as a young man. Parks was an outlaw and a womanizer in his early years, but also a war veteran and savvy businessman who worked hard to become successful and take care of his many relatives. He accomplished the goals he set and was never insistent on becoming the face of whatever project he backed… which is likely why what he did worked.
Prominent Atlanta radio traffic reporter and NASCAR show host Captain Herb Emory sums up Parks best.
“He was a true pioneer of stock car racing and one of the founding Fathers of the sport,” he said. “The winning of the first championship with his driver Red Byron is still a giant accomplishment that we will always be able to brag about in Georgia. My thoughts and prayers [go out] to the Parks family, and my thanks to them for sharing Raymond and his memories with those of us not lucky enough to witness the first steps of the sport we love.”
I agree. So Godspeed, Raymond Parks. You will be missed… but your presence in NASCAR will always be felt.
For a great summation of Raymond Parks’ involvement in the early days of NASCAR, pick up a copy of “Driving With the Devil” by Neal Thompson.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.
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