Rich Venza wrote in to ask about Kenny Parks, the brother of Wally Parks, and what role he played in auto racing. Kennard Gene Parks was born on September 18, 1928 in South Gate, California to Henry Clyde and Bessie Aurella Ravenscroft Parks. The oldest child in the family was his brother, Wallace Gordon Parks, known as just Wally, who was fifteen years older than Kenny. Wally would go on to be a co-founder of the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) and founder of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). Kenny's mother passed away five years after his birth, during the worst part of the Great Depression and he was raised by his father and two sisters, Clyda and Nelda. Uncle Kenny had a charismatic personality. I never knew anyone who didn't like him. He could charm the scales off a snake, sell the snake oil back to the con man and leave a smile on the meanest man in town. He was also a prankster of the first order and the first rule was to keep your eyes open. Kenny was also a loyal brother, caring husband, loving father and a great friend to all. If he ever got angry, I didn't see it. You could learn more by looking in his eyes than you could from most libraries. It was those sparkling eyes that held his secrets. His older brother, Wally, garnered most of the publicity and spotlight, but Kenny was one of those men who left his mark indelibly etched in our minds and hearts. He seemed to be everywhere and touch everyone and they remembered him after he left us too soon.
He married Billie Lou Krieger on October 16, 1948 and they were together for almost sixty years. Their children were Robert, Kathy and William. Kenny raced at the dry lakes in Southern California in the 1940's, and then began driving jalopies around 1949. His favorite color was pink. Hot pink. The other racers used to tease him no end, but he would retort, "they'll know when I roll my car over, because it's the only pink car on the track." He did roll his car at Carrell Speedway in Gardena, coming out of the far turn away from the stands, nudged by another driver, slipping and sliding on the soft dirt and his car running up the dirt berm, becoming airborne. We saw it coming and the fans began to ooh and aah as the the pink jalopy crashed into the top of the fence and went over on its side and rolled down an embankment into a swamp. My aunt Billie screamed, along with many other women in the stands as my father bolted over the railing and ran across the field, oblivious to the cars still on the track. Other men followed him and they reached the shattered fence and hurtled down the slope to the overturned car. Uncle Kenny told us that gasoline began to leak from the car and dripped on him and he thought the car might catch fire. The first person that he saw was his brother, Wally, and as uncle Kenny slid out of the car the screams turned to cheers. In all the years that uncle Kenny raced cars and bikes, he never was seriously hurt. The only serious injury he sustained came when he agreed to go roller skating at a rink in South Gate with his son Bill and friends from Cragar and fell and broke his hip. He had several operations to replace the hip ball with an artificial one and he could tell the most gruesome stories when showing the old replacement.
Kenny went to work for Roy Richter at Bell Auto Parts in the 1940's. Bell and Richter were legendary by that time. Bell Auto Parts was originally owned by George Wight and he sold auto parts and worked on cars, a typical garage in the 1920's. Wight sold some specialty speed equipment, not much, but he saw the need and felt there would be a growing market. Wight and George Riley, of the Riley 4-Port fame among others, sponsored dry lakes racing in 1929, and attracted a throng of young people interested in their speed parts. Wight also bought the Cragar name from Cran Gartz in the early-mid 1930's and the patterns to the Cragar head and sold a bunch of them before the war.
Roy Richter bought the business from Wight's widow some time after George's death. According to Art Bagnall Richter bought the speed shop from the family on July 2, 1945. Roy had a gift for understanding what people wanted and he was a great marketing man. Along with the Edelbrocks, Iskenderians and other manufacturing greats, Roy helped to found SEMA, a trade organization that fostered the growing speed equipment industry. Richter was like a second father to Kenny. It was like the typical story; kid hangs around, owner hands broom to kid, kid works his way to the top. Kenny swept and cleaned, stocked the shelves, handled the counter sales, learned to do the ordering and inventory. Working for Richter wasn't work at all and being at Bell Auto made him royalty to the other teens. The atmosphere was light and prank-filled. The worker who left his metal lunch pail on the wooden benches would find it bolted to the bench when he returned. The postal delivery man who helped himself to the cocoa or coffee on the counter might find a huge dollop of shaving cream in his mug from a doctored can that looked like whipping cream. Photographs were doctored and interchanged and one's face might adorn the rear of a picture of a hippo or elephant. Working at Bell Auto Parts was a dream job for those who loved the racing culture.
Kenny supported and raced in the CRA and WRA, at the dry lakes and off road events. He owned a Kurtis Kraft midget race car and a semi-sprinter that was so ugly that he named it 'Eegor.' The sprinter was originally built and raced on tracks in Hawaii and was found by Kenny's nephew, Mike Olivero. Mike was the son of Nelda Parks and Laurence Olivero and cousin to Bobby Olivero, who won a CRA Sprint car and USAC Silver Crown Championship. The midget was sold to Joe MacPherson and displayed at Joe's Garage, a race car museum in Tustin, California. Kenny raced the midget and Eegor at many WRA and CRA nostalgic events. He often came to the reunions hosted by Walt James and Hila Paulson Sweet. James was a long-time racer and official in the California Roadster Association (CRA), which was the track roadster group that raced on the West Coast. In the 1950's the CRA would allow sprint cars to race in their group and changed their name to the California Racing Association. Hila Sweet started the California Jalopy Association (CJA) reunion to honor those who raced jalopies, including the Lady Leadfoots. She changed the name of the reunion to the California Racers Reunion and Kenny was there to give is support. Roy Richter passed away and Bell Auto Parts and Roy's other business were sold. Kenny wasn't happy with the new owners and opened up his own business, Bell Motorsports and sold Bell Helmets and Simpson safety gear. He became quite successful, people preferring to deal with him because of his joyful personality. His son Bob worked for Bill Simpson, until the Simpson company moved back to Texas. In the 1980's, Kenny sold Bell Motorsports and decided to move from his long time home in Downey, California.
Southern California had become more crowded as the various cities grew in size and seemingly merged into one great metropolis. Kenny and Billie built a large house on a ranch-like setting in Templeton, California and encouraged their two sons to move to the Paso Robles-area. His nephew, Mike Olivero also lives in Paso Robles. Kenny coaxed his brother Wally, to buy a home on a hilltop across the road from Chic and Julie Cannon, long-time friends and a former NHRA official. One could name ten thousand people and still not account for all the people that Kenny influenced over his lifetime, but one name is worth mentioning; Art Bagnall. Art is another one of those special people. Art is probably short for Artistic, because Bagnall and Kenny would exchange letters, doctored photos and drawings that were so outrageously funny that some of them have been circulated on the internet. They formed a club, which included Wally, and then set out to malign and mock each other in the most humorous and outrageous style possible. Art would send delinquent notices to the Parks Brothers, demanding that they pay their "dues" for his fine publications. Kenny and Wally referred to the "magazine" that Art put out as "fish-wrapping paper." When Kenny passed away from the ravages of prostrate cancer in 2006, Art was there to lead the proceedings with his proverbial water bottle, always filled with Vodka and rib-tickling stories of his best friend. It is impossible to name all the times that Kenny helped people with their research into early car racing, or to help out his fellow racers who were in need. Uncle Kenny left behind a loving wife, two sons and a daughter, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren and many friends who will always remember the "other Parks" brother who meant so much to motorsport racing.