Excuse me for getting off stock car racing for this week, folks, but the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals reminded me of one of my favorite people. When we lost Wally Parks last year at the age of 94, we lost another legend.
Those of you who could care less about drag racing – or even any kind of racing for that matter – may never have heard of Wally Parks. To me, that’s unbelievable. I knew Wally’s name from before I was in junior high here in Kentucky, when I was already reading Hot Rod Magazine and he was the editor. I knew he was the head of the Southern California Timing Association, which ran speed trials on the dry lakes, and I read all about it in 1951 as he founded the National Hot Rod Association – effectively becoming the founding father of professional drag racing.
And it’s not a stretch to say that Wally invented the concept of organized drag racing. With the support of law enforcement agencies, he urged hot rodders to take their sport off the streets and onto regulated courses. Even though I eventually drifted into oval racing, I kept tabs on drag racing and its growth – never losing respect for the man who kept it all afloat.
In my 15 years at what was then Indianapolis Raceway Park, I never heard anything but support and encouragement from Wally. As an old editor, he even seemed to appreciate the less-than-orderly way my office looked. He’d come in during the U.S. Nationals and sit down, then say, “This is the only office in this building where I feel comfortable.”
I also found out that he had a soft spot for ovals, and stock car racing in particular. He even set a record in the measured mile on the old beach course at Daytona in a 1959 Plymouth.
Wally Parks is no less an icon in motorsports than Tony Hulman and Bill France Sr. What he started has become arguably the largest sanctioning body in motorsports, with more than 80,000 members at the present time – the great majority of them being racers. I’m sure he never dreamed it would progress to the point it has, any more than France Sr. thought NASCAR would become what it is today. But even as his sport went national, Wally never lost his love for racing and racers – and he always kept his hot rodder’s attitude.
Somebody asked me last week why they call the NHRA’s signature trophy a “Wally.” Well, back in the ’80s when I went to work for them, they called it an “Oscar.” But the movie people started complaining that they had copyrighted that name. “Wally” just seemed to fit.
Bob Daniels, the general manager of IRP at the time who is also now gone, asked me if I wanted to meet Wally at the 1985 U.S. Nationals. Happy to oblige, I was never more proud that day when he said, “I’ve heard of you – you’ve done some flagging on oval tracks at some pretty big events.”
In particular, I recall two particularly poignant moments with Wally. The first came at a dinner we had before a NASCAR Busch Series race. Wally was there, and I had to introduce him. I said, “Here’s a man who looked down a bunch of abandoned airport runways and said, ‘I have a dream.'” Wally complimented me and said it was one of the best introductions he’d ever had.
The second time came the year after Bob retired as GM at the U.S. Nationals. I had a Honda 750, and I used it a lot to get around the park during events. I had decals on each side of the tank which said, “FastassSumbich.” The new GM asked me to take it off or cover it up for the Nationals. I made up a magnetic strip with “Indianapolis Raceway Park” on it and put it over the decal.
On Sunday of that Labor Day weekend, I was getting on the bike in the parking lot of the Parks Tower (named for guess who), when Bob and Wally walked by in the company of people like Vic Edelbrock, Jeg Coughlin Sr., Don Prudhomme, etc. Bob knew about the bike, and he said, “Hey, John, show Wally what’s under the magnetic.”
Knowing that if I didn’t, Bob would, I peeled off the magnet, waiting for the explosion. Instead, there was a roar of laughter. Wally smiled and said, “Take that strip off and leave it off, and tell your boss I told you to do it. Be proud of your hot rodder’s attitude!”
That’s the kind of guy he was.