Wally Parks moved drag racing out of the street

January 16, 2005|by JASON STEIN/ Wheelbase Communications

Even if you wanted to try it, the folks here in Goltry, Okla., would tell you it's probably impossible to do 200 mph through this town of 268 people.

Finding a straight line through Goltry is the big obstacle.

The way old State Road 45 does that hard right onto Main Street when you approach town - some folks call it a "coat hanger" of a right turn - the old road just isn't conducive to doing more than about 35.

The "coat-hanger" turn. That's about as exciting as Goltry gets.

Located a good drive from Helena and even farther from Enid, this town in Alfalfa County has just about seven streets that are numbered, not coincidentally, First through Seventh.

So it's perhaps even a little more amazing that one of those 268 people made a living finding speed and pressing the pedal to metal.


Wally Parks was born here and then spent most of his life in California.

And if you don't know who Parks is, there are 267 other Oklahomans would be glad to help out.

"Sure. He's the father of drag racing," says one man at a table inside Miss Vikki's Caf on Main Street. "Nothing else needs to be said."

Even for a guy from a slow town, Parks means speed. And a lot of other things.

Over the years, Parks' foresight and determination helped turn reckless recreation into legalized sport. Today, drag racing is one of the largest participant forms of motorsports in North America.

"No one could have conceived what has happened," Parks once said of the National Hot Rod Association's (NHRA) growth and success. "We weren't planning or marketing geniuses or anything like that. Things happened and we went with our instincts."

What has happened to sanctioned drag racing - TV deals, major sponsorships and big money - can be credited to Parks.

His blood has always boiled for racing.

After moving from Oklahoma to California as a kid, Parks began racing fenderless Model T and Model A roadsters in high school and then modified and raced his own Chevrolet while working at a General Motors assembly plant. When World War II began, Parks also did a stint as a military tank test driver and served in the South Pacific.

When Parks returned to the U.S., he helped organize the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA), a sanctioning body for speed trials on California's dry lake beds.

Parks had a vision for drag racing and began putting together the first hot-rod shows for owners to display their machines.

In 1949, he also helped organize the first SCTA "Speed Week," where participants raced for the first time against a stop watch at the Bonneville Salt Flats. That popularity spread to the Santa Ana Drags on an airfield in Southern California in 1950, drawing hot-rodders from all around.

But the turning point came with the help of another lakes racer, Robert E. Peterson, when Peterson and Parks formed a publication in 1951 called Hot Rod Magazine. Parks finally had a forum to "create order from chaos," as he once said. It was exactly what the hobby needed.

Hot-rodding had been a taboo subject in the 1940s and 50s. Teenagers usually raced on public roads and Parks was determined to change the image through standard quarter-mile races from a standing start between cars in the same class.

That year the NHRA was born and drag racing began to flourish. Within a decade, the NHRA was organized in every state and had moved overseas.

A tall man with a deep voice, Parks continued driving up until the 1960s, but spent more time growing the sport in new markets and through new methods.

He left the publishing business in 1963 to take over the NHRA operation full-time and was named to numerous racing bodies.

Today, drag racing has grown to include almost 200 tracks from New York to California. Many of them are multi-million dollar facilities built to handle 100,000 spectators, more than 1,000 entries. The NHRA is the largest motorsports sanctioning body in the world with more than 70,000 members, 35,000 competitors and 4,000 annual racing events.

Now in his early 90s, Parks can still be found at certain NHRA events and even occasionally drives. A few years ago he even drove a rebuilt 1957 Plymouth to celebrate a Hot Rod Magazine special edition.

"Just for the fun of it," Parks said at the time, flashing his ever-present warm grin.

Something says a small part of Oklahoma smiled a bit that day, too.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at :

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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