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Wally Parks, 94; drag racer founded National Hot Rod Assn.

Special to The Times

Wally Parks, the hot-rodder and entrepreneur who curbed drag racing on city streets by steering drivers onto legal racing strips and founded the National Hot Rod Assn., has died. He was 94.

Parks died Friday at St. Joseph Hospital in Burbank, the NHRA announced, without specifying the cause of death.

Today, the NHRA is the world’s largest motor sports sanctioning body, best known for its professional race car drivers locked in 300-mph duels over a straight quarter-mile stretch of pavement in 23 national events held each year.

But the Glendora-based organization also has at the grass-roots level more than 80,000 members and 140 member tracks from coast to coast catering to drag racers and their lust for speed.

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“Today is a sad day in the world of NHRA and the sport of drag racing,” NHRA President Tom Compton said in a statement. “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.”

As a young man, Parks was one of those hot-rodders. Since the early 1930s, racing fans had gathered at impromptu exhibitions on dry lake beds, back roads, even city streets in Southern California.

Parks started out by racing a modified 1924 Chevrolet at what is now Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base. After joining the Road Runners car club in 1937, he was part of a group that formed the Southern California Timing Assn., one of the nation’s first hot-rod car clubs.

“The SCTA began getting heat from government and the media over the incidents of racing on city and country streets, so some of us decided to start a campaign to get racers off the streets,” Parks recalled a few years ago. “Back then, the clubs were racing on the dry lakes, but after World War II, we found that abandoned air strips, or ones used only part time, were available.”

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An unused runway at what is now John Wayne Airport in Orange County became the Santa Ana Drags, the first professional track to charge admission in Southern California. (A strip adjacent to a landing field in Goleta is recognized as the first drag strip of record in Southern California.)

There was no set distance for side-by-side races in those days. It was whatever was available, but Parks determined that a quarter-mile was best because that was about the distance suitable for racing on an airport runway, with enough room after the finish line to stop the cars. He felt the need for a specific distance so that times from any track in the country could be compared to others.

In 1947, Parks, Bob Petersen and Bob Lindsay established Hot Rod magazine in Los Angeles, with Parks as its first editor. Two years later, he gained nationwide recognition for his proposal to open the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah for speed trials, featuring drivers racing against a stop watch, not just against each other, and emphasizing quickness in addition to speed.

Using Hot Rod magazine as a forum, Parks promoted legal drag racing for enthusiasts of speed and power, as well as for a mainstream audience. In 1951, he formed the NHRA and became its first president.

Parks organized Safety Safaris led by NHRA field officers who traveled around the country showing members how to conduct a safe and standardized drag meet. They also met with local law enforcement to explain their goal of getting racing into a legitimate, controlled environment.

The NHRA’s first official race was held at the L.A. County Fairgrounds in Pomona in 1953, and two years later the first national event was run in Great Bend, Kan. Drag racing became standardized, with cars in similar classifications racing a quarter-mile from a standing start. The rewards were modest.

“Just trophies,” driver Don Prudhomme told a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter in 2001, on the NHRA’s 50th anniversary. “We never even thought about making a living doing it, let alone it turning into what it has become. We never dreamed of that.”

Nicknamed “the Snake,” Prudhomme lined up against Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen and “Big Daddy” Don Garlits.

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“There’s no question that we had colorful characters,” Parks said. “They were part of the foundation, the building of the popularity of drag racing. They developed the show business element of the sport.”

By the time Parks left Hot Rod magazine in 1963 to work full time for the NHRA, the sanctioning body had organized in every state across the country. Drag racing fans were attracted to the personable drivers and the exotic cars that had been modified to their powerful essence.

“Being in the pit area is something you can’t explain to people and you can’t show them on TV,” Parks told the Contra Costa Times in 2001. “You have to be there and feel the ground shake and see for yourself the magic of these vehicles.”

As performances pushed the limits -- with speeds ticking above 300 mph and topped by Tony Schumacher’s 337-mph run at Brainerd, Minn., in August 2005 -- sponsors signed on and TV networks struck deals.

Today, the NHRA trails only NASCAR in U.S. racing popularity. It has an established fan base attending races at stadiums with luxury boxes, its major corporate sponsors include Budweiser and Powerade, and ESPN has a contract to televise its events through 2011.

“It’s still a little awesome to me,” Parks told The Times in 2001. “None of us had any vision it was going to develop into what it is today. We were trying to create an activity for our particular interest in cars that would be safe and fun.”

Parks came to love cars at an early age. Born Jan. 23, 1913, in Goltry, Okla., he was 8 years old when his family moved to California, settling in South Gate. At Jordan High School in Watts, his auto shop instructor had two Model T roadsters that students stripped down to hot rods as class projects.

After high school, Parks became a test driver at a General Motors assembly plant. During World War II, plant production was converted to military vehicles, and he tested tanks for the Army. He later served in the Philippines, where he toyed with a hot-rod Jeep in his free time.

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After the war, he returned to work for GM as a road test driver and engineer until 1947. He also jumped right back into the hot-rod scene, becoming general manager of the SCTA, organizing races and car shows. Then it was on to Hot Rod magazine and the NHRA, where he was president until 1984.

A tall man with a deep voice and a statesman-like presence, Parks remained on the NHRA board of directors as its chairman emeritus until his death. He also was chairman of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, where a 7-foot statue of him stands at the entrance.

He was drag racing’s first inductee into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1992 at Talladega, Ala., and the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1993 at Novi, Mich.

Within the NHRA itself, Parks was the first recipient of the Don Prudhomme Award in 1994, given to an individual who made a profound impact on the growth of NHRA drag racing.

In 1957, Parks drove his Plymouth Hot Rod Special to a speed record for closed-bodied cars at Daytona Beach during NASCAR’s Speed Weeks. Forty years later, at 83, he drove the same car over the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Rogers and El Mirage dry lakes in Southern California. “I did it just for the fun of it,” he said. “And to prove to some folks that I could do it.”

The ’57 Plymouth was honored too. After being displayed at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum’s exhibit saluting Chrysler’s early Hemi engine performances, it was put in the NHRA museum that carries Parks’ name.

Parks, a longtime resident of Glendale, is survived by two sons, Richard and David; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. His wife, Barbara, a secretary at Hot Rod magazine and the NHRA, died in January 2006.

Services were pending.

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Times staff writers Claire Noland and Jim Peltz contributed to this report.


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