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One nation, united for Wally

A celebration of the life of NHRA founder Wally Parks at the Auto Club NHRA Finals.
07 Nov 2007
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Lined up just behind the starting line at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona were some of the biggest names in drag racing, past and present. Kenny Bernstein, Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins, Joe Amato, Dale Armstrong, all members of the exclusive club of top 10 finishers from 2001's salute to NHRA's top 50 racers. Flanking them to their right were NHRA division directors from past and present and Steve Gibbs, vice president of The Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum. To their left were drag racing icons Marv Rifchin of M&H Tires and Linda Vaughn and Sport Service founder Chick Saffel. Further to their left were members of NHRA's board of directors.

Down the centerline of fabled Parker Avenue stood members of the NHRA Safety Safari, past and present, behind them their respective rigs of the day: shiny GMC pickups and the iconic Dodge wagon and single-axle trailer that carried the Safari on its first tour of the United States in 1954. Original Safari members Chic Cannon, Bud Evans, Bud Coons, and Eric Rickman stood proudly in reproductions of the original powder-blue coveralls they wore as NHRA's Johnny Appleseeds in those formative years of the NHRA.

Along the return road sat more than 30 hot rods at the ready, spanning the ages and the classes, from pre-war roadsters and dry lakes cars to front-engine dragsters and 1970s Funny Cars. From finish line to starting line, the cars became more contemporary and included one representative from every class of the sport, from Jr. dragsters to sport compacts, Stockers, alcohol cars, and Pro Stocks. On the starting line were Mike Neff's Castrol GTX Mustang and Doug Kalitta's Mac Tools Top Fueler. There was Art Chrisman's famed #25, the Glass Slipper, the Magicar, and Larry Dixon's Howard Cam Rattler, familiar machines to museum and Cacklefest veterans. There was Don Prudhomme's U.S. Army Arrow and Don Garlits' Swamp Rat III, with "the Snake" and "Big Daddy" themselves at the wheel.

They were all there, the hot rod nation, to salute NHRA founder Wally Parks, who died six weeks before the event and whose loss still burned the hearts of those who knew him.

Backstage before the festivities began, as hugs and kisses were exchanged among Wally's closest friends and acquaintances, L.V. slipped a small silver disc into my hand. "A pocket angel … for Wally," she told me. I warmly shook hands with old pal Tom McEwen, who has recovered well from his heart scare earlier this year, and longtime NHRA field boss Bernie Partridge, who we all feared we were going to lose just two years ago, and Jere "Lefty" Grice, the retired but not forgotten fearless "fire diver" of the Safari. I hugged Marilyn Lachman, a former NHRA employee and one of the closest friends of both Wally and Barbara Parks, and Eileen Daniels, who lost her husband, Bob, earlier this year.

I walked the line of cars, ogling each along the way, stopping to chat with friends like Ed and Ron Bergenholtz, whose Mazda6 represented the NHRA Sport Compact world, of which Wally was a staunch supporter, but as the time grew near for a mass lighting of engines, I naturally gravitated to the cars of my youth, centering on Prudhomme's Arrow. As a teenager, there probably wasn't a bigger fan of "the Snake" than me, and to see him there with his car that I had seen run so many times and to see former crew chief Bob Brandt standing by to fire it, both in their old Army team shirts, was the next best thing to an actual time machine.

Prudhomme sat in the cockpit, talking to Brandt and longtime crewmember Willie Wolter, and it's a photo I've seen dozens of times in magazines throughout three decades -– "the Snake" hunched over the butterfly steering wheel observing preparations. I dug through our photo archives for a similar photo and found this one, from the early '80s, of Prudhomme and Brandt preparing to fire their car. I also was quite struck going through our voluminous photo files of the many pictures of Prudhomme thrashing on his car, cleaning cylinder sleeves, toting bellhousings, adjusting linkages, and more, things you'd never see a Tony Schumacher or a Rod Fuller do these days. That's no knock on them; that's just the way it was back then. They didn’t just drive 'em.

Although my Pomona flashback disintegrated when "Snake" flipped open his cell phone to answer a call, the image of him back in the cozy confines still gave me goose bumps. I chatted with Willie (hey, there's a picture of us!), who I've known since the early 1980s –- we spent a lot of time together during our star-crossed trek across the country with Jim DePasse's Alcohol Funny Car for the 1984 Gatornationals –- and made a promise to come down to "Snake's" shop in Vista to see the lineup of restored Prudhomme cars he's been working on.

Two slots down was the Bubble Up Trans Am that used to belong to Gordie Bonin but now is raced in nostalgia competition by former U.S. Nationals Top Fuel champ Terry Capp and wrenched by veteran Roland Leong, both of whom stood at the ready. I've know Roland for decades, too, and we chatted and compared rumors and told lies to one another about how well we've aged over the years.

Between them sat another great piece of racing history, the 1978 world champion Over The Hill Gang Top Fueler. Kelly Brown's driving career had ended just as my NHRA career was beginning, and, other than a phone interview once to discuss his stunt driving, we'd never really met. I introduced myself as a big fan and was shocked to receive the same compliment in return. K.B., who's still stunt driving ("but no more of those 40-foot ramp jumps," he said), had saved the tires that won the final round of the 1979 U.S. Nationals –- inserting truck tubes and temporarily turning them into coffee tables -- and donated them to this restoration of the OTHG car. He looked right at home in the cockpit, and I promised him I would be in touch to let his longtime fans know what he's up to. (Check out next week's ND, too, for more photos from the salute.)

After playing macho "I-don't-need-no-stinking-ear-plugs" man in my early days in the sport, I've been very protective of my hearing, but when the word came to fire the cars, there was no way I was going to get this music filtered through ear plugs. I stood mere feet away to watch Brandt spin over the period-perfect engine –- iron heads, 16gpm fuel pump, and all –- that Wolter had built for the pristine-looking Arrow ("original paint," bragged Wolter) and inhaled the 95-percent perfume. Up and down the line, engines were fired and revved, and ear-to-ear grins were plastered on many a face.

Down the return road rolled Wally's sons, Richard and David, at the wheel of the re-created version of Wally's famed '29 Model A roadster, to the cheers of the crowd, preceded by Parks' record-setting Suddenly Plymouth.

When the engines finally stilled, the crowd let out a large cheer, and there were plenty of tear-streaked faces -– not all of them from nitro -- on the return road smiling back at them and thinking of –- and missing -– Wally Parks.