Book review by Richard Parks, photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz
A recent work on Wally Parks, founder of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) is titled Wally Parks; Hot Rodding's Hero and is currently being sold on the www.NHRA.com website. It is listed as a book, or more aptly a paperback, though it looks and feels more like a one issue magazine in the quality of Rodder's Journal. I will review it as a booklet, since that is what the publisher prefers. I haven't found the booklet to be sold anywhere other than the website and the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum does not have it in their gift shop, at least not when I called. There is no author listed or an ISBN number, so it probably won't go into bookstores. The booklet measures 8 and 1/2 by 11 inches and is 44 pages in size, counting the front and back covers. There is a fair amount of text and story development, but the book is really a high class pictorial along the lines of the best photographic magazines that you can buy. It's on a par with Rodder's Journal, though RJ should be considered the top grade in magazines, which are really books. There are 44 black and white photographs and 18 color pictures. The quality of the photographs are extremely good, depending on when they were taken and how they were transposed to the booklet. There are no graphs, pie charts or any other visual aids. This is simply a dedicatory coffee table book by the NHRA to their founder, who was a truly remarkable man and a hero to those who followed him in land speed and drag racing.
A deeper deconstruction of the book is therefore unnecessary. As a tribute, it has a purpose and it achieves that, by simply extolling the virtues of a man that the racing community loved. Wally Parks; Hot Rodding's Hero will not give you the man's beginnings or his family roots, except for a cursory biography. Some of the information was copied and recopied from prior magazine articles and therefore the style of the work is readily apparent. A few mistakes are only known to family members, but there aren't many and they are sometimes trivial. The booklet concerns the professional life of Wally Parks, while his family life is largely left out. There were a few things that were new, from sources that I haven't seen before. Overall, it is an adequate, fair and open account as seen by his friends and associates. What you won't find in Wally Parks; Hot Rodding's Hero is controversy, nor should you expect it in a booklet that was meant to be laudatory. It will take a bigger work, even larger than Robert Post's High Performance, to adequately explain the birth and growth of drag racing as a major world sport. Somehow, drag racers feel compelled to take sides, protesting every decision, every argument and every outcome as if it were abnormal. The story of drag racing has at its very core the life of Wally Parks, a man who always tried to guide a raging beast with the tactful hand of a violinist. Perhaps drag racers are not supposed to be led anywhere, but like Dylan Thomas' ode to his father, go raging into the dark.
I'm not altogether sure that Wally Parks would like to be thought of as anybody's hero. He never claimed to me that he was the founder of hot rodding or drag racing, though he was proud of being the founder of the NHRA. Nor was he the founder of the Southern California Timing Association, an organization that prepared him for the task of organizing the sport of drag racing. As I have pointed out in previous articles, the hot rodding and dry lakes land speed racing was a part of the overall car experience that young men engaged in during the Great Depression of the 1930’s and the World War II era of the 1940’s. Wally Parks was pivotal in helping to gather support towards a lot of racing activities during this period. The SCTA was founded by seven car clubs in November of 1937, after the collapse of the Muroc Timing Association. He was uncomfortable in putting forth his presence, but he was everywhere, doing whatever job needed to be done. He led the security patrols at the dry lakes, organized the newsletter and edited it, but gave the credit to others. In 1946 he was nominated and elected as the SCTA’s first post-war president and led them to unprecedented growth. In his field, he was sought after by a number of groups, one of which was the California Roadster Association. Walt James loves to tell the story about how he asked Parks to be the president of the CRA, but was turned down. “I’m thinking of creating a national car club group,” was the reply. Why did James, Robert Petersen and others find this man so beguiling? There were a number of reasons, but two come to mind. First, he could lead men when they were at the height of passion. Two, he accumulated as the secretary of the SCTA a huge list of members and interested parties. With this list he wove together a network of individuals that he could weld into a group. As a group, they would strive to protect hot rodding and car racing from the ravages of an angry public that saw hot rodders as gangsters.
He was uncomfortable with having the NHRA Motorsports Museum, in Pomona, California named after him. For all his notoriety, he was a very private and genteel man. There are probably those that knew him better than I, and those that hold a vastly different view of him. He allowed himself to stand forth as a symbol, albeit reluctantly, so that people could hurl insults at him and not the sport that he loved. Everyone has a movie hero that they like to compare themselves and others to. Wally Parks was a mixture of Gary Cooper's hard luck and Jimmy Stewart's boy next door. He was loyal to a fault and charismatic. People simply loved or hated him, but what is love and hate, are they not the passions of the soul. You can see in the faces of the people in the booklet and their emotions can't be hidden. That is what I liked the most as a reviewer, the impact that a book has on people and the photographs wonderfully explained Wally Parks as he appeared to others. He was never threatening and always reassuring. His eyes and wrinkled little smile said that he cared about you. His passion seemed restrained, but barely so, for under the surface it boiled with a rage, and that rage was for the protection of his sport. Wally Parks lived through the worst of times, suffered and fought for that which he believed in, was a true war hero and a generous man. He readily admitted to his faults and I never knew him to refuse a man's hand. Wally Parks; Hot Rodding's Hero is not the complete book, but it doesn't have to be. See www.NHRA.com for more information.
Gone Racin' is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.