Legendary founder of NHRA offers insight about hot rodding, drag racing and the museum that bears his name
When it comes to the history of American motorsports, names that immediately stand out include Bill France Sr., Tony Hulman and, of course, Wally Parks. One could argue that drag racing was born in Goltry, Okla., in 1913, with the birth of Parks, a true visionary who in 1951 founded one of the most successful and influential sanctioning bodies in all of motorsports, the National Hot Rod Association. Today, Parks, 93, is still extremely active, especially as chairman of the museum that bears his name, the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California. Located in Pomona, Calif., the Museum produces two very successful national Hot Rod Reunions, one in Bowling Green, Ky., and the other in Bakersfield, Calif. Park took some time recently to answer five key questions about Reunions, the Museum and hot rodding.
1. Where did the idea for the Parks NHRA Museum come from?
Wally Parks: The initial idea for an NHRA Museum was mine, way back in the early 1980s. I gathered a small group including Bob Russo, Dick Wells and Dean Batchelor to discuss the prospects of our having a Museum to assemble and preserve the NHRA's background and its history. We produced several 'concepts' and even considered having a Museum at Indianapolis Raceway Park, which NHRA had recently purchased. But, without funding, no action was taken at that time. It was Steve Gibbs who much later proposed the formation of the NHRA's Historical Services, which was started in a building across Fairplex Ave. from the NHRA Pomona Raceway. We were later offered a lease opportunity at the Fairplex and we chose a rundown 1930s building, which we totally renovated, as a home for the NHRA Motorsports Museum.
2. What has hot rodding and its motorsports offshoots meant to American business and American culture?
Parks: Hot rodding has contributed in many ways to America's 'business and culture.' Over the years, it has spawned via street rods and drag racing a vast market in performance and safety equipment and accessories. Hot rodding contributed to the creation of the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) and development of a multi-billion-dollar industry based on sales of its products to the 'hot rod' culture. It has also supported safer highway driving; inspired advancements in innovative experiments with cars and created new forms of public entertainment, like drag racing, car shows and cruises.
3. What role do the Reunions play for the Museum and its mission?
Parks: The NHRA's two Reunions, in California and Kentucky, have provided diverse kinds of car-oriented features for participants and public appreciation. Among their up-front values is to help underwrite the costs of maintaining and enhancing the NHRA Motorsports Museum.
4. There's so much history to see in the Museum, if you were leading a private tour, what are some of the things would you want to be sure no one missed?
Parks: Selfishly, I would want to introduce Museum visitors to the origin and history of the NHRA and its foresight in establishing and utilizing its Divisions for communications with the members and the initial role played by the 'Safety Safari' in the 1950s, which introduced organized drag racing to communities coast to coast. I would also highlight the actual winning vehicles of the NHRA's early national drag races events, and emphasize the importance of including other fields of motorsports that are regularly featured among the Museum's diversified attractions.
5. The Museum has thrived, featuring two national events, nine monthly cruise nights and a growing number of special exhibits. In addition to all this, how do you see the Museum evolving?
Parks: The Reunions, Cruise Nights and the special functions hosted in its agenda of activities all contribute to its ongoing success as one of the finest, most appealing automotive showplaces in the nation. How do I see it evolving? I think lots of new opportunities will become available that can help ensure its future. We have an extremely loyal and dedicated staff; they will perform the essentials that will maintain the Museum's growing attractiveness, along with developing innovative new programs that will increase attendance and widen exposure.
Named for the founder of the National Hot Rod Association, the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California, houses the very roots of hot rodding. Scores of famous vehicles spanning American motorsports history are on display, including winning cars representing 50 years of drag racing, dry lakes and salt-flat racers, oval track challengers and exhibits
Wally and recently appointed museum Executive Director Tony Thacker.
Wally and CJ "Pappy" Hart at the NHRA Museum during the drag strip operator's panel in 2004.