GLENDORA, Calif. (Oct. 1, 2007) — Wally Parks, founder and driving force behind the success of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), died Sept. 28 at age 94.
It was Mr. Parks' vision, goals and unconditional commitment to the need for speed and side-by-side racing in a safer, more controlled environment that created what is today the world's largest motorsports governing body, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA).
NHRA President Tom Compton said Mr. Parks' death marked “a sad day in the world of NHRA and the sport of drag racing. Words simply can't describe the immeasurable impact Wally has had on the sport he created and the millions of people's lives he touched along the way.
“The name Wally Parks is synonymous with drag racing, and his vision and direction will guide NHRA for years to come. Everyone in drag racing, and the industries formed to service the sport, will forever be indebted to Wally, his vision, his focus and his desire to create, build and grow NHRA.”
In an e-mail message from the Hotrod Hotline Newsletter, Mr. Parks' sons Richard and David said their father “passed away in the presence of about 18 of his family and friends.” They noted that they and their dad “were nearly finished with his book on the origins of the SCTA (Southern California Timing Association) and after that he was going to finish his memoirs.
“Our loss is also a great loss for all those who knew and loved him and looked up to him for guidance and wisdom. Plans to honor him are being formed by the NHRA, family and friends.”
Dallas Gardner, NHRA's board chairman, said Mr. Parks “spent his lifetime doing what he loved. He marked the path and led the way for this incredible industry and the sport of drag racing. Wally was NHRA, and through his dream came a path to follow with lofty goals and ambition. He put the people in place and trusted in them. He has not abandoned us. He has left us with a road map that he knows will be followed.”
Mr. Parks founded the NHRA in 1951 and, along the way, received countless awards in the motorsports world. He played a pivotal role in the establishment of an entire industry devoted to speed and automotive aftermarket parts and accessories that today is a multibillion-dollar business, SEMA said.
The trade association noted that Mr. Parks “never implied that he did it all himself. His pride and joy, and where he spent most of his time in recent years while still serving on NHRA's board of directors, was The Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum,” which is operated by the Automobile Club of Southern California at Fairplex in Pomona, Calif.
Mr. Parks was born in Oklahoma and lived in Kansas until age 8, when he and his family moved to California where, SEMA said, his automotive interests surfaced. In his high school years, he became active in building stripped-down Model-T Fords and Chevies for use on the street and in early speed trials conducted on dry lakebeds in the Mojave Desert, north of Los Angeles.
In 1937 he took part in the formation of the SCTA—an organization focused on conducting land speed record events—and served as one of its officials until World War II began. In 1946, following military service in the South Pacific, Mr. Parks was elected president of the reorganized SCTA. In 1947, after 10 years of employment as a road test driver and process engineer for General Motors (GM) Corp., Mr. Parks left GM to assume a new role as the SCTA's general manager.
SEMA said it was Mr. Parks' concept that produced America's first hot rod show, presented by the SCTA in 1948 at the Los Angeles Exposition Armory.
That year Mr. Parks also helped co-publishers Bob Petersen and Bob Lindsay in the introduction of Hot Rod magazine, which became one of the world's largest-circulation auto-enthusiast publications. He later was named its first editor. In 1949 Mr. Parks organized a campaign that led to the opening of Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats for hot rod speed trials, an annual event that still thrives.
In 1963 Mr. Parks resigned his position as editorial director for all of Petersen's automotive magazines—including Hot Rod, Motor Trend, Car Craft, Sports Car Graphic and Motor Life—to assume full-time administrative duties as president of NHRA.
He was named Man of the Decade, 1962-1972, by Popular Hot Rodding magazine and was recognized as Man of the Year in 1973 by SEMA. He also was drag racing's first inductee into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1992 in Talladega, Ala., and in 1993 was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in Novi, Mich.
Among other honors, in 2002 Mr. Parks was recognized for his many contributions to the sport of drag racing when he was presented with the inaugural Robert E. Petersen Lifetime Achievement Award at the fourth annual Hot Rod & Performance Trade Show in Indianapolis.
Mr. Parks' wife Barbara, whom SEMA said “was regarded as the most influential behind-the-scenes force in the growth of NHRA,” died in January 2006 after a long battle with cancer.