BURBANK, Calif. – Wally Parks, an automobile enthusiast who founded the National Hot Rod Association and helped turn drag racing into a legitimate sport, has died. He was 94.
Parks died Friday at Providence St. Joseph’s Medical Center of complications from pneumonia, said Michael Hollander, a spokesman with the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona.
As a test driver for General Motors, Parks started organizing car races in Southern California’s dry lake beds in the 1940s.
“He effectively created drag racing,” Hollander said. “These kids were racing jalopies and he wanted to get them off the streets and start them racing in an organized manner. He set up a system of timing and scoring and turned it into a legitimate sport.”
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As president of the Southern California Timing Association, Parks set the distance of a quarter of a mile as the standard length of a drag race.
He formed the NHRA in 1951 out of those loosely organized desert races. It grew from a simple car club, with Parks’ wife Barbara hand-typing membership cards, into a governing body events across the nation.
The NHRA’s first sanctioned major drag race was held in April 1953 in a parking lot at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona. The city became the permanent home of the Winternationals and its season-ending World Finals. The gold trophy given to NHRA race winners is affectionately called “The Wally,” Hollander said.
Parks was president of the NHRA until 1983, then served as chairman of the board until 1999.
In the 1950s, he also served as founding editor of Hot Rod magazine, which chronicled the burgeoning sport.
Born in Goltry, Okla., in 1913, Parks’ family moved to Southern California in the 1920s. He spent three years in the Army serving in the South Pacific during World War II.
His wife Barbara died in 2005, Hollander said. He is survived by two sons, Richard and David.