If there is a more legendary hot rod personality than Mr. Wally Parks, we’re not sure who that could possibly be. Who else’s resume includes being a founder of the SCTA, the first editor of Hot Rod magazine, the man who convinced the city of Salt Lake to open Bonneville to racers and, oh yeah, founder of the National Hot Rod Association.
Not bad for a guy from Goltry, Oklahoma.
Wallace Gordon Parks was born in 1913 in the Sooner state and moved with his family to Southern California as a youngster. Like many future hot rod legends, high school auto shop provided the opportunity to strip down a Model T Ford for conversion into a hot rod (although the term “hot rod” wasn’t yet coined).
Once in SoCal, Parks — always intrigued by race cars — would visit Eddie and Louis Meyer’s shop, peer through the window and let his imagination rev. He also was a regular at Ascot speedway, watching midgets and sprint cars do battle.
Desperate for a car of his own, he parlayed four weeks of lawn mowing into a 1924 Ford touring. He immediately sawed off the muffler. Despite not having a license, young Parks would cruise his neighborhood streets — until the steering failed and he careened into a parked car, forcing him to sell the T to pay for the damages.
In 1933, Wally and his buddies trekked to Muroc to watch the lakes racers. It was love at first pass. He soon volunteered for the Muroc Timing Association as a course observer. Later that year he did more than observe: he turned 82mph in a roadster of his own.
Despite the economic depression, Parks landed a job at the GM plant in South Gate, California, eventually becoming a “test driver.” When Word War II began, the plant shifted to building tanks, with Parks’ duties switching to testing M5-A1 lightweight armored tanks. No word if he took one to El Mirage.
Soon, the global conflict snared Parks, who enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the 754th Tank Battalion. He served in the Philippines and Solomon Islands. It wasn’t long before Parks dropped a Ford V-8 60 powerplant into his Jeep.
Upon the war’s end, he returned to the same GM plant in Los Angeles — but the racing bug bit hard and in 1947 Parks moved to the SCTA full time as general manager. It was during this period he met Robert Petersen, a publicist who wanted to put on a car show, in part to show the world that hot rodders weren’t all slick-haired outlaws terrorizing the populace with fast cars. Together, they hosted the Los Angeles Hot Rod Show at the Armory. It was a huge success, one that garnered inches of ink portraying hot rodders as decent members of society.
A year later, Petersen launched Hot Rod magazine and Pete recruited Parks to join the fledgling staff on the June 1948 issue as “technical advisor,” effectively functioning as editor. With HRM legitimizing hot rod culture and racing — mostly on back roads in an unsafe and illegal fashion — Parks conceived of an umbrella organization that would bring legitimacy to the maverick endeavor. In 1951, he launched the National Hot Rod Association (while still acting as Hot Rod editor, no less). He served in both roles for 15 years before dedicating himself to NHRA full time.
“Wally can be described as the man responsible for modern-day drag racing,” wrote historian David Fetherston. But the quarter-mile standard for a drag strip was a serendipitous result of a road test Parks conducted for Motor Trend and Hot Rod magazines in 1949. Let Fetherston explain:
“Wally had to test a Lincoln at an air strip, and he realized if the car accelerated for more than a quarter-mile, it had trouble stopping on what was left of the runway. Later in the day, a local auto dealer showed up with an Oldsmobile 88. He paired it off against the Lincoln, creating the first-ever match race. When he formed NHRA, he chose the quarter-mile as the official race distance.”
Parks was also instrumental in securing the Bonneville Salt Flats as a race venue. In 1947, Parks, Petersen, Lee Ryan and racer Ak Miller traveled to Salt Lake City to seek permission to run speed trails across the expansive lakebed. Permission granted, the SCTA hosted the first Bonneville speed trials in 1949, with Parks as organizer and racer; he drove the Francisco/Burke flathead-powered belly tank machine to 148mph.
Under Wally’s and the NHRA’s direction, drag racing quickly gained popularity. NHRA held its first official race in April 1953 on a slice of the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds parking lot in Pomona, California. By 1955, NHRA staged its first national event, called simply “The Nationals,” in Great Bend, Kansas.
More importantly, drag strips sprang up across the country, offering hot rodders a safe place to demonstrate their cars’ prowess and power. To ensure that tracks were set up properly, NHRA launched the “Safety Safari,” a team of officials that traveled around the country with a trailer replete with all the accouterments for setting up a drag strip, including a full Chrondeck timing system. The Safari even made presentations to local police and city councils, extolling the virtues of safe competition.
Holding dual roles as magazine editor and NHRA impresario finally proved too much for Parks, and he resigned as HRM editor to focus full time on the NHRA. The results of that focus are well known. NHRA developed into one of the largest membership and racing organization in the world. Today, NHRA boasts more than 70,000 members and more than 40,000 licensed competitors, plus a staff of 200 dedicated employees that run the show. There are 120 member tracks across North America and 30 categories of competition, including Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle at the professional level.
“Nobody had any illusion it would become as big as it has,” Parks once told Autoweek magazine. At Parks’ 90th birthday party, NHRA legend Kenny Bernstein said, “Because of what Wally started, drag racing grew and came to Texas. Because of Wally’s vision, I was able to make it my life.”
Wally Parks passed away at age 94 in 2007. His influence on motorsports is profound and enduring. He is the very definition of a hot rod legend.
Above photo from NHRA