Dale Coleman, chairman of the board of the museum, shared his thoughts about what the events mean to both the museum and the racers, as well as his own rich history in the sport.
This year, the museum relaunched the event known as the Hot Rod Reunion as the Wally Parks NHRA Nostalgia Nationals. What went into that decision?
We thought, “What is it that we can do at NHRA that nobody else can do?” and that’s to put on a quarter-mile, nostalgia race that’s NHRA-sanctioned, so let’s just lean into it, and let’s make that what it is. Over the years, the Hot Rod Heritage Series racing and the other featured competition at the events has become the main focus. To many fans and to many of the racers who compete at those events, the 1960s and ’70s was the golden age of drag racing. The idea was to carry that energy and excitement and put big Funny Car and big front-engine Top Fuel fields out there and say, “Look, if you want to see racing the way it was, come check this out.”
This year, we’ve got all of that and much more in Bowling Green. In addition to those large fields of nostalgia nitro cars, we’ve got more than 30 Cacklefest cars, exhibition runs by wheelstanders, AA/Fuel Altereds, AA/Gassers, Nostalgia Pro Stocks, and the Straight Axle Mafia, plus a Pro Fuel Harley Motorcycle exhibition of vintage nitro bikes. We also have hundreds of show ’n’ shine cars, a vendors’ midway, and the always legendary swap meet. My role as the chairman of the museum is to focus on keeping the museum operating and finding new ways to attract visitors and generate revenue. Operating any museum in this day and age can be very, very challenging, and the revenues that are generated from those two races goes a long way towards helping to pay for the operating expenses of that museum. Those two races are vitally important for that reason, so we were looking at ways to try to revitalize them.
What about the decision to put Wally’s name on them?
Everybody loved and respected Wally Parks, and when I worked at Fairplex, we heard that Wally was looking for a place to have a museum, so Wally and I drove around looking for a place on the Fairgrounds to put that museum. We ultimately decided on what was the Home Arts building, which was only used for the [L.A. County Fair] and was underutilized, so we came to an agreement that Fairplex would fix up and maintain the outside and NHRA would take care of the inside, so that’s how the museum came to be. It was in need of a lot of work, but it’s turned into a really beautiful, cool place.
I got to know Wally pretty well and had a lot of respect for him. Knowing where this all started and that he was a guy who was more responsible than anybody, we wanted to figure out a way to tie Wally in with what we’re trying to do here, which is really to highlight drag racing the way it was. We wanted to figure out a way to honor him and make sure the younger generations get to know about him. We want to keep his name out there to the degree that we can, and we thought this was a great opportunity to do that by putting his name on an event whose name says what it is: It’s a nostalgia nationals. Putting Wally’s name on this is to honor him and to call attention to the fact that we’re trying to give people that memory of being a kid in the stands when Don Garlits came rolling around the corner. I want you to feel like that’s where you’re at, to the degree we can — just good, old-fashioned drag racing.
Speaking of Garlits, he will be the grand marshal for the upcoming event in Bowling Green, Ky., and Don Prudhomme will be the grand marshal later this year in Bakersfield. That is quite an all-star lineup.
To have two of the greatest drag racers of all time, Garlits and Prudhomme, to honor this year as grand marshals is very appropriate. For a guy who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s in Southern California, Don Prudhomme is my guy. You can be a lot of things in life, but you can’t try to be cool if you’re not, and Don Prudhomme just exudes cool. If you were a young kid growing up in that era, those were your guys, too, so I’m thrilled that they agreed to do it, and I hope people respond to it.
Tell us about your background in drag racing.
I grew up in Pomona, going to the drag races as a kid in the 1960s and ’70s. The Winternationals were a big deal. My dad was a cop in Pomona, so we’d get tickets. We moved to California from New Jersey in April 1965, so the first race I ever went to was the ’66 Winternationals and saw Mike Sniveley win in the Hawaiian the year after Don Prudhomme had won there in the Hawaiian. Being a fan of the sport, I ultimately got to know a lot of people at NHRA and became the person who was the conduit between Fairplex and NHRA and negotiated the contracts.
I continued in that role for many years before retiring from Fairplex in 2020 as chief revenue officer. Along the way, I also was able to go to Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School and earn a Super Comp license. Having the involvement I had with NHRA all those years and considering Peter Clifford and Glen Cromwell as friends from our years working together, when I retired from Fairplex, they asked me if I would go on the board of the museum, and I was honored to do that, then about six months ago, Glen asked me if I would become chairman, so here I am.
What else can we look forward to from the museum in the future?
I want to do something that honors women in drag racing, because it’s such a cool story. Glen and I went to Las Vegas and sat down with all the top women drag racers today and told them we want them to be part of this, too. Certainly, we want to honor Shirley Muldowney and Paula Murphy and the earlier pioneers, but we want the current drivers to be part of it, too, because they’re part of the story, and every one of them was super excited, so we’re starting to look for funding to create that exhibit, and we’re hoping that some of today’s sponsors and companies want to be a part of helping us tell that story.
For a scechule of events and to buy tickets to the inaugural Wally Parks NHRA Nostalgia Nationals, click here.