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"Now he belongs to the ages"

Reflecting on the passing of NHRA founder Wally Parks
03 Oct 2007
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

I can't believe it's been five days since we lost Wally Parks. Then again, a part of me still can't believe that we have.

Not to overstate the drama, but Wally's passing is going to be one of the memories where I say, "I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news." Not to equate it one way or the other with 9/11 or Elvis dying, but I will remember it with those kind of things.

I was in the driveway of my house Friday afternoon, slinging stuff from the garage into the back of the SUV to take to my daughter's house for a yard sale Saturday. My cell-phone record says it was 5:15 p.m. when I received word from NHRA Vice President-Public Relations & Communications Jerry Archambeault that Wally might soon be leaving us. Less than two hours later, he was gone.

Although we didn't live with the specter of Wally's death hanging over us, we'd have been fools not to prepare for the eventuality. It's a common practice in large companies to have biographies of key executives prepared and continually updated. Several years ago, Jerry had convened a small panel to discuss our plans for the sad day, and I'm proud to say – and I know Wally would be proud to know – that it paid off.

To be honest, it's been a bit of a whirlwind since that sad Friday, which explains my gap in posting here. When the founder of your company dies, and when he's done so much more and meant so much more than his oft-used title implies, it's hard to do enough to honor him.

I raced into work, which, fortunately for me, is only a five-minute drive, and while waiting for the official word, began offline to rework the NHRA.com home page into a tribute to Wally. Over the last year I'd built some creative ideas for a tribute, including the graphic at the top of the page and the slideshow, never knowing when they would be used, but knowing full well that when they were needed creativity might be a scarce commodity. I had watched and taken notes over the years how other organizations handled the losses of their founding fathers, so I knew that we'd build a big online tribute to Wally, but having to go from the bare frame of an idea to full-blown website in under two hours was a challenge. 

John Force has thanked Eric Medlen for guiding him to make safety improvements to his car, and I've got to tip my hat to Eric as well for helping me with Wally. If you remember, it was also on a Friday that Eric left us, and I also had spent an evening alone here in the office building a tribute to Eric. If you compare the two pages (Eric and Wally), you'll see the inspiration.

I started out simple, with the announcement, comments from Dallas Gardner supplied by Jerry, a quick photo gallery of Wally driving various cars, and a call for comments from the community. I poured out my thoughts here; looking over what I wrote, it seems a little disjointed now, which is okay, because that's how I was feeling.

Although I had pushed the tribute live at 8:18 p.m., the instant that the sad news was distributed via e-mail to the media (preceded, on Tom Compton's insistence, by a note from him to all NHRA employees, so they would hear the news from him first rather than in the media; that's just how we do it at NHRA), it wasn't until midnight that I felt comfortable calling it an evening. The fans, God love 'em, responded in droves with comments that I posted. I added to the page throughout the weekend as more fans and Pro racers submitted remembrances.

The real work began Monday. As a lifetime fan of newspapers, I was impressed with the tribute that the Los Angeles Times paid to its longtime publisher, Otis Chandler, when he passed away in February 2006, a multipage stand-alone section that told his life story, filled with quotes and anecdotes from and about the man. Wally deserved that kind of treatment when he died, I remember thinking.

Beginning late last year, I began the ambitious project of creating a similar life story for Wally, weaving together facts on hand with information culled from various sources. I had worked closely with Wally in 2000 to tell NHRA's early story for our 50th Anniversary website, submitting for his approval research I had done. I can’t really express how important it was for me to get it all down on paper and approved by Wally while he was still with us, because once he was gone, so was the living history. I gently and surreptitiously (I hope) pried small details from Wally about his personal life, not really wanting him to know I was working on his obituary.

It ended up being the longest, most exhausting, yet most fulfilling thing I've written. I entrusted the manuscript to ND Managing Editor Vicky Walker, who spent a cumulative 20 hours over several weeks not only improving its flow and grammatical correctness but also fact-checking names, dates, spellings, historical references, and Wally's genealogy. Longtime Wally friend and board member Dick Wells also worked with us, and Dave Wallace, one of drag racing's most esteemed historians, was an invaluable sounding board for facts. I felt it was my duty as National DRAGSTER editor to help be a caretaker of this information so that future drag racing fans would know their roots. In the end, I think it's as complete and accurate a story as we could tell. (Wally's sons, Richard and David, have almost completed a thorough history of the founding of the SCTA on which Wally had invested much time; it's going to be a must-read.)

Over the last two days, I worked with National DRAGSTER Production Manager Matt Hurd to combine my text with some great photos to create a special 16-page stand-alone publication that will be bundled into the next issue of National DRAGSTER as a keepsake for NHRA members. It was truly a labor of love, constructed while we simultaneously published the regular issue. Thanks to Adriane Ridder for her support and the green light, Vicky for the wordsmithing, Matt for the design, the photo team for its contributions, and Conley Publishing for finding press time for us. This really meant a lot to me personally.

Of course, Wally's image also graces the cover of the current issue of National DRAGSTER. Dallas Stock winner Mark Faul will be the answer to the trivia question "Who was going to be on the cover of ND the week that Wally died?" but I'm sure that Faul will win again and earn the spot. (From a purely selfish point of view, taking Faul off the cover of the Fall Nationals issue deprived us of the clever "Faul Nationals" cover blurb (credit: Jerry Foss) we had planned.)

As sad as I am to know that Wally will never be on the other end of the phone again or grace my Inbox with a "Wally memo," I know full well that, without getting all John Edward on you, another part of me knows we haven't really lost him. He'll be here in spirit. And, as some might know, the title to this piece, "Now he belongs to the ages," is the quote from Edwin Stanton, secretary of war in Abraham Lincoln's Cabinet, said as he stood by Lincoln's deathbed. That's how I think of Wally.

As we wrapped up the tribute publication, we sat in Matt's office, searching for the right words to place on the outside back cover. It was Teresa Long who inspired me when she asked, "What would be the last thing you'd want Wally to know?" 

So there, below a fine photo of Wally, I wrote: "Your vision remains our mission."