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Gallery of Speed at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum

Gallery of Speed at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum


Story by Richard Parks, Photographs by Roger Rohrdanz


     On July 29, 2014 the staff of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, California invited the media to the Gallery of Speed, a term they use for the new and refurbished exhibits at this first class museum.  Larry Fisher, Greg Sharp, Monique Valadez and other staff members were beaming with pride at the new look for their museum and rightfully so.  The Wally as many refer to it, is an experience that every drag racer, land speeder, oval track, road course racer and motorsports fan should see.  There is a special feeling to the place.  It is as close to a shrine as a racing sports fan and hot rodder can get to in terms of that emotional experience.  There are many museums around the country and some in foreign lands that are special in their own right.  There are also garage museums and little alcoves dedicated to the history and heritage of hot rodding and motorsports racing.  Maybe someday there will be a museum at Indy to represent the earliest roots of drag racing, but for now The Wally is it.  The museum started as a small little two room building across the street from the famed Pomona drag strip and after a few years it moved to the Los Angeles County Fairplex and took over a 29,000 square foot, Art Deco building, constructed during the 1930’s for the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932. 

     The Wally opened in 1998 with Steve Gibbs as the first director, followed by Sam Jackson, Tony Thacker and is now led by Larry Fisher.  I’ve seen grown men cover their faces lest a tear betray their emotions as they read from displays showing the history of drag racing and other forms of motorsport competition.  The glass display cases contain memorabilia that bring back memories for those who were at the various races and events.  Plaques on the wall were bought and inscribed with the names of people that were being honored.  Some 70 to 80 cars and motorcycles represented many eras and types of competitive racing.  The founders of the museum were Wally Parks and a dedicated group of co-workers and volunteers who wanted to honor all those who contributed to our automotive age and motorsport racing in general.  The museum staff holds three major reunions around the country, bringing the history and heritage of motorsports racing to the fans.  They also hold events at the museum and special exhibits.  Individuals and companies use the facility to hold group events and celebrations of lives for those who have passed on.  It is a special place for me as well and I have used it for reunions and to bring my extended family to see their heritage, visit the car show held on the first Wednesday of each month and to visit with old and dear friends.

     We received a nice invitation from Monique Valadez, who greeted us warmly and welcomed us in.  She introduced us to staffers Robin Savoian, the museum’s new Development Officer, Rose Dickinson and Wayne Philips.  Larry Fisher, the Director of the Museum, addressed the representatives of the media.  “I hope you like the new look of the museum,” he told us.  “We wanted to bring out the human element of hot rodding.  In the past we have put the emphasis on the cars themselves and only briefly explored the people behind the cars.  The new exhibits will stress hot rodding, customs, the dry lakes (land speed racing) and drag racing,” Larry concluded.  Greg Sharp, the museum curator and historian said, “Our new exhibits stress hot rodding.  Over there is The Beast, a famous Bonneville car restored by Dr Mark Brinker.”  Sharp has dedicated his life to the museum since it opened and has an encyclopedic memory of all forms of racing.  He has been honored by the Dry Lakes Racers Hall of Fame and other groups for his efforts to keep our history and heritage alive.  Steve Gibbs, the museum’s first director and a long-time NHRA official spoke next.  “We started off the museum in a 1500 square foot building across the street from the race track.  Wally Parks had wanted a museum to showcase our accomplishment for a long time.  We moved to the Fairplex in 1998 to a place with 29,000 square feet of space.  We have a great future ahead of us and hope to show you the many historic races we’ve experienced over the years,” Gibbs told us. 

     Pro racer Ron Capps spoke next, “I get to race for a living and then I get to be with all those who made this sport possible.  I was just a young kid working as a crew member on a race team and I never thought I would be here today.  I was just in awe of the guys in the sport of drag racing.  I went to Bonneville with my Dad for the first time and it was impressive.  This museum is our history.  Just AWESOME man.  You don’t get this in NASCAR.  There is something special in land speed and drag racing.  There are so many stories in this sport,” Capps concluded.  Tom Ivo, he doesn’t really call himself TV Tommy, told the crowd, “I haven’t had a real lot of sleep,” he said drowsily.  That brought the crowd to its feet as the Grand “Young” Man of drag racing is not really a morning person, but he made the effort to get to one of his favorite hang-outs.  He also good naturedly accepts his moniker of TV Tommy Ivo, from his days as a movie and television star.  Ivo started acting in Hollywood when he was a toddler and continued through the hot rodding, beach blanket and drag racing movies of the 1960’s.  After that the Hollywood age of Heroes was replaced by a darker era of sick anti-heroes and horrible villains.  But by then Ivo was a well-known drag racer who raced and usually won at drag strips all over the country.  “It’s been 60 years and here’s my car in the museum.  I can’t believe how the sport has grown,” Ivo sighed.

     The last speaker was the Grand Old Man himself, Art Chrisman, “I have three cars in this museum,” he said.  “I’m blown away by this museum.  I really appreciate what has been done to keep the past alive,” Chrisman finished.  Art is the quintessential motorsport hot rodder and racer.  There’s a great book out on his racing family written by Tom Madigan, titled THE CRISMAN LEGACY.  Pick up a copy and you will understand why the Chrisman family is so special to drag and land speed racing and hot rodding in general.  He was there at the very beginning of the creation of this sport and he is still actively involved some seven decades later.  Larry Fisher took over the microphone and invited all of the media to look around the museum and see the new additions and exhibits.  You could see in his eyes how excited he was to share this great experience with us.

     I met good friend, John Duran, from the Cal-Rods.  Whenever I’m looking for news or a scoop, or a ride in his golf-cart I turn to John.  He keeps me well-grounded on what’s happening at the museum.  Other Cal-Rodders were Vic Cunnyngham and Leonard Knight.  Jan Horton came with Mr X.  Paul Soliz raced at the museum’s reunion in Famoso in High & Mighty and Bruce Boardman ran his car Bad Obsession in D/gas.  Cunnyngham is a good friend and restorer of Wally’s Roadster, which is a recreation of the roadster that Dad drove to work at Petersen Publishing in the 1940’s and ‘50’s and the car, sans seatbelts, that he used to terrorize my cousin John Ziebarth and me when he used to take us to the Garmar Theater, along the back roads, when we were kids.  That roadster, with its flathead engine could really fly.  That’s another car with good memories that you will find in the museum.  Vic is also a Tromper and this club has been around since the 1940’s.  It’s still around and very active, though the members are third generation by now.  One of the Trompers is Don Zabel, who has raced at the dry lakes in Southern California since 1942.  It’s very rare now to find a pre-war racer from that era.  Other Trompers who came to support the museum were; Henry Aldano, Michael Rickman, Al Reyes (club president), Rex Jaramillo, and Sandy Reyes.  I couldn’t believe that Michael “The Kid” Rickman is as old as he is.  Mike went with his Dad, Eric “Rick” Rickman on many assignments, races, reunions, shows and events over the years.  Rick was the number one photographer for magazines like Hot Rod from the very beginning.  He was a close friend of my father’s and was an original member of the famed Safety Safari teams that were sent out in 1954 and after to organize local car clubs into Timing Associations.  The sport of drag racing owes much to Rick Rickman, Bud Coons, Bud Evans and Chic Cannon.

     Bobbie Colgrove, Louie Brewster, Art Gould, Tom “Mongoose” McEwen, Joel Embick, KTLA TV news crew, and Pete Ward also came to represent the media.  Jack Beckman made a special appearance.  Bobbie is a photojournalist who was there in the very beginning when women began to break down the barriers of all male sports journalists.  She represented the AARWBA organization.  Louie Brewster is an automotive and racing reporter and editor in the San Gabriel Valley and covers the drags and NASCAR races in Southern California.  Joel Embick is also a former boat racer who campaigned an 18 foot flatbottom boat called “LEBEL.”  Pete Ward is the editor of Drag Racer magazine, part of the Beckett group, based in Yorba Linda, California.  For all those who have not seen the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum and would like information on hours and schedules, the phone number is 909-622-2133.  They are closed on Monday and Tuesday.

Gone Racin’ is at [email protected].