Celebration for Wally Parks
At the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals
Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, CA
Story by Richard Parks and photographs by Roger Rohrdanz
A Celebration of Life was held for Wally Parks, who passed away on September 28, 2007 at the age of 94. His full name was Wallace Gordon Parks, but he always went by Wally, though he liked to be called Dad by his two sons. Dad was born in Oklahoma, but raised in Kansas and came to California with his family around 1920 at the age of 8. He grew up in Southern California and frequented the junk yards where he could get old beat up bikes and restore them, graduating to old cars. His first trip to the dry lakes came in 1931 and he was hooked on land speed time trial racing ever since. Most people remember Dad as the first professional editor of Hot Rod Magazine and the founder of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) in 1951, but his list of achievements is much more varied than this. He co-authored one book and was working on a second book with his two sons, David and I, when he passed away unexpectedly. He had more ideas for projects and books after he finished his book on the early origins of the SCTA (Southern California Timing Association). Steve and Cindy Gibbs organized a Celebration of Life for him at the Auto Club of Southern California NHRA Finals on Sunday, November 4, 2007 at the Fairplex in Pomona, California.
Dad had told David and I that he did not want a funeral or memorial service, but that he liked the Celebration of Life that the racers gave to Steve Evans many years ago. He wanted people to remember the good and happy times and to rejoice in a life well spent and not grieve or mourn his passing. That's just what he got and what he deserved and from what I could see, there were smiles and cheers and hurrahs on the track and in the grandstands, although it was hard to suppress the tears. Everybody knew him, felt comfortable in his presence and sensed that he loved them and their zeal for drag racing. He was very approachable, patient and helpful. That's what made him a success in a tough sport and a difficult business. I've heard so many people say that they wished he was their father, but in a way, he was. He nurtured and encouraged people to succeed and had very little interest in the business of business. He was all about friendships and loyalty and the need to legitimize drag racing and encourage safety in the sport. Even his disagreements with people in racing were gentle and he always tried to reach an understanding with everyone. His method for leadership was by consensus. He gave those who worked for him a great deal of freedom and leeway to create and develop new methods and ways of doing things.
That's why it seemed so logical for Steve Gibbs, his daughter Cindy and a host of volunteers to organize and plan Dad's Celebration of Life at the races last week. They've done it before and they've done it well. He had trust and faith in his friends and associates and so do we. The day went exactly as we were told it would. The semi-final races were finished and the volunteers, nostalgia cars, crew and museum staff began to move everyone into position. The volunteers had to do it fast and they had to do it safely, because the program could only last so long before we had to move everyone out and make way for the final round of eliminations. As we waited in the staging lanes we talked to our old friends. There was Linda Vaughn, PJ and Bernie Partridge, Tom Compton, Alex Xydias, Sandy and Dallas Gardner, Marv Rifchin, Bill 'Digger' DeGuio, Tom McEwen, Randy Fish, Marilyn and Ron Lachman. The old Plymouth station wagon was hitched up to the red and white NHRA trailer and all four of the original Safety Safari members were there in their blue overalls; Bud Coons, Eric 'Rick' Rickman, Chic Cannon and Bud Evans. The Budweiser Beer Wagon was in front of the station wagon and it was hitched up to eight Clydesdales, who were antsy to get started and parade down the track.
A hundred volunteers under the deft guidance of the Gibbs and with the support of Graham Light, Glen Cromwell and the NHRA operations staff, moved the 36 nostalgia cars into position in an instant. Also supporting the event were Eric Lotz, Allen Miller, Bob Muravez, Eileen Daniels, Shane McWilliams, Gwen and Dust McWilliams. They lined the cars up to face the stands in an orderly row with Dad's Suddenly land speed car in the center, without a driver, as if it were the riderless horse at a Presidential funeral. Left to right were the cars of; Warren Johnson, Steve Johnson, a TAD, TAFC, Comp, DeFrank, STK, SC, SG, SST, Sport Compact, ET and a Street Legal car. Suddenly stood alone in the center. Then followed; Christy Thompson, Don Garlits, Don Prudhomme, Over the Hill Gang, Bubble up, Kuhl & Olson, Yeakel, Magicar, TV Tom Ivo, Dragmaster, Glass Slipper, Art Chrisman, LA Roadsters, Street Rods Forever, Road Kings, Cal Rods, SoCal Roadster, Bonneville, and the Ed Iskenderian Roadster. At the starter's line was a John Force Funny Car and a Top Fuel Dragster. On the course were four modern Safety Safari vehicles and the old Plymouth station wagon and trailer, with Coons, Rickman, Cannon and Evans looking as young and handsome as when they first went out on the road to create modern drag racing. The final car was Wally's Roadster, a reconstruction of the famous roadster that adorns the decals and patches of the NHRA logo. My brother David and I got to ride down the track as the last car to move into position and then we parked right next to Suddenly and waved to the crowd. The past, present and future merged into one as the crowd in the stands erupted in praise of the man they hailed as their leader.
Dave McClelland and Bob Frey took over as Masters of Ceremonies and introduced the honored guests. They went down the line, paying tributes to those who founded drag racing and those who are continuing to lead the sport. Some of those from my memory included; Tom Compton, Dallas Gardner, Linda Vaughn, Dick Wells, Graham Light, Marvin Rifchin, Shirley Muldowney, Bob Glidden, Kenny Bernstein, Bill 'Grumpy' Jenkins, Joe Amato, Dale Armstrong, Frank Manzo, Dr Joe Oliver, Chuck Nelson, Tony Thacker, Greg Sharp, Ed Eaton, Eileen Daniels, Darrell and Polly Zimmerman, Bernie and PJ Partridge, Steve Gibbs, Chick Saffell and current and past NHRA Division Directors and esteemed guests. McClelland's deep rich voice extoled the exploits of those on the stand and then he turned his attention over to the cars parked along the concrete guard rail. One by one he told of their history and the men and women who drove or crewed in the cars. He pointed to the four men standing in their blue jumpsuits and told us about the fabled exploits of the original safety safari tour. A video came on the big screen and showed clips of Dad and his life in racing. Finally, McClelland called the crews and drivers to "start 'em up" and the cars roared to life in a loud, rumbling sound that brought the past to life and filled the air with nitro and the roar of the crowd. Finally, McClelland signaled to the cars, "cut 'em off boys," and one by one the engines died until all that was left was the mighty sound of the fans yelling their approval and love for the man and the sport that he helped to mold.
Slowly the cars pulled out of formation and headed back to the pits as the staging lanes began to fill with the pro cars who were anxious to race. David and I drove Wally's Roadster down the return road to the pits and thanking the fans who filled the stands for their love and support. Don Garlits had flown out to the Celebration of Life, then immediately left for the airport to make his flight back home. So many others sacrificed their time to come to the race that it is impossible to name them all or properly thank them. In the stands, offices, sky boxes and suites were Dad's family and friends. Dad's granddaughter Tamara and grandsons Scott, David and Michael were there as well as his granddaughters-in-law Stacy, Michelle and Tara. Barbara C. Parks, Dad's daughter-in-law was present and his other daughter-in-law, Epi Parks, was watching his great-granddaughters, Allison and Jennifer, at home. Leila Livingston, the niece of our stepmother, Barbara Livingston Parks, also was in attendance. Wayne and Ruth McMurtry, Faye and Dick McClung, Joyce Rauch, Dave Kleeman and over 40,000 fans were on hand to say their goodbyes to a man we all loved and can't do without in our lives. It is impossible to remember and mention everyone who was on hand, but a special thanks goes out to the racers, writers, photographers, museum and NHRA staff who worked so hard. Dad is very proud of you all.
The impact Wally Parks had on so many of us was profound and he will be dearly missed. Check out the stories, photos, and memories of Wally Parks from his many friends at www.hotrodhotline.com/wallyparks
Gone Racin' is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.