Sunday, February 15, 2009
Raymond Parks taught Big Bill a thing or two
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Deity strolled gracefully, for age 94, through the paddock here Sunday morning, hardly noticed by the crowd.
If the throngs had had any idea who he was and what he did, they would have mobbed him. Television crews would have waited in line to interview him. Virtually everyone in the infield would have gravitated toward him, and people would have poured out of the grandstands to catch a glimpse of him.
Raymond Parks is the man who made stock car racing.
It is that simple.
And that complex.
Parks was dapper in a fine suit and fedora, just as he was at races a decade before there was even a NASCAR, when he was giving an outlaw sport enough dignity to make it worth organizing.
At 94 he looks maybe 64, but when you try to talk to him, you realize he is extremely hard of hearing. A friend from Virginia, Grady Rogers, helps him answer questions.
I didn't need to ask much. I have spent decades researching and writing about this living cornerstone, this man who kept an upstart dreamer named Big Bill France going.
The 51st Daytona 500 is the 51st running that Parks has attended -- although last year he retired to his hotel room after the start.
But he was here long before Big Bill France even dreamed of building a superspeedway and running a 500-mile race.
A Parks car, driven by Red Byron, won the first NASCAR race ever run, on the beach here on Feb. 18, 1948. Parks and Byron went on to win the first championship, in 1949, of what would eventually become the Sprint Cup Series.
But Parks runs back far deeper into stock car racing lore than that.
In 1938, at Red Vogt's garage in downtown Atlanta, Parks formed The Racing Team -- hardly a unique term now, but it was then. His drivers were two dashing, young moonshine runners, Roy Hall and Lloyd Seay.
Vogt would build the cars on an unlimited budget, all with cash. Vogt's only orders from Parks: All cars would be freshly painted, with no dents, entering each race.
How did he get that cash?
"Any way I could get it," Parks told me some 15 years ago, when he could still hear well enough to be interviewed one-on-one.
He'd landed on the streets of Atlanta as a teenage runaway from the northern Georgia mountains in 1929, ran moonshine liquor until he'd save a stake, then went into the bonded whiskey business and branched out from there.
By the late '30s, he was a kingpin of legal liquor and amusement machines -- jukeboxes, pinball and slot machines. He also was the founder of Atlanta's own original "lottery" -- i.e., the numbers game -- long before the lottery was cool in Georgia.
The cash was pouring in, and he took to hanging out at Vogt's garage, where both bootleggers and federal agents got their cars souped up without prejudice from Vogt. (Vogt did say, however, that the bootleggers got the better equipment because they had more money to spend than the revenuers.)
Hall and Seay persuaded Parks to back them, and from there, Parks became "the Rick Hendrick of his time," Junior Johnson has said.
The way I see it, Rick Hendrick is the Raymond Parks of his time.
The Racing Team roared across the Southeast, with Vogt towing the cars and the drivers hurtling over the highways with Parks in the new Cadillacs he always kept. They'd run 110 mph on the roads from race town to race town, with Hall or Seay at the wheel and Parks sleeping peacefully in the back seat, trusting totally in his drivers' skill.
Late in his life, Big Bill France told several people -- including me, when I was a very young journalist -- that the greatest driver he'd ever seen, anywhere, was "a fella from up in Georgia by the name of Lloyd Seay."
Seay would take the North Turn at the old beach course here with his Ford coupes turned up on two wheels, the left-side tires spinning wildly in midair. He also drove with one hand only, out of habit, and kept his left arm propped up in the driver's side window.
Such was Seay's skill driving cars that "I heard Lloyd say he could take a '39 Ford coupe and climb a pine tree," an old Georgia bootlegger once told me."I wouldn't doubt it."
The wild ride ended the day after Labor Day 1941.
Seay had won three straight national-level stock car events in eight days -- here on the beach, then at High Point, N.C., and finally at Lakewood Speedway, the legendary 1-mile dirt track in Atlanta, that Labor Day.
Seay sped home to Dawsonville, Ga., that night, and the next morning was shot and killed by a cousin in a bootleggers' quarrel over a load of sugar for making moonshine.
Seay was 21 when he died, and yet-to-be-born NASCAR was robbed of its first great charismatic hero.
Parks never got over that. A few weeks later, a magnificent tombstone appeared on Seay's grave in the Dawsonville town cemetery. To this day, a glass-enclosed picture of Seay smiles eternally out toward old Highway 9, known in Parks' youth as The Whiskey Trail.
Parks to this day has never admitted he placed that tombstone, but everybody knows he did.
In his grief, he got out of racing and went off to war and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, living in the same foxhole in the snow for three straight weeks.
As for Hall, he just went wild with grief. He rode out the war running 'shine. After the war, he was involved in a shootout with police in Greensboro, N.C., then was arrested and extradited back to Georgia on a bank robbery charge.
Parks restarted his racing team with Byron as driver after NASCAR was formed. (It was the brilliant mechanic Vogt, by the way, who came up with both the name, National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, and the acronym, in the formative meetings here in December 1947.)
Hall got out of prison too late to stick with Parks' reformed team, went back to racing in 1949 and suffered a head injury at High Point, N.C., that ended his career. He died in a nursing home in 1994.
Through the '30s and '40s, whenever Parks had an extra car for beach races here, he always gave a break to the promoter who also fancied himself a driver, Big Bill France.
After the war, France couldn't even afford a pace car for his races. So he'd phone Parks in Atlanta, and Parks would always show up with a brand-new Cadillac that would serve as pace car.
After the 1950s, several decades went by when NASCAR hardly recognized Parks at all. I stopped voting in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame balloting about 10 years ago because Parks' name never appeared on the ballot.
As we sat and talked Sunday morning, Grady Rogers told me that Parks, at long last, will be inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame this year.
That recognition is long, long overdue. In my book, Parks should be included among the first group of inductees for the new NASCAR Hall of Fame.
I did manage to get him to hear one question clearly: "Is it as much fun as when y'all raced on the beach?"
His entourage tried to prompt him by nodding -- say yes, Raymond, to keep good will with the current generation and the giant speedway.
But he remains an honest man. He smiled, he beamed and he shook his head.
"No-ho-ho!" he laughed out his answer."It was more fun back then."
And then, finally, after all these decades, NASCAR president Mike Helton introduced Parks at the drivers' meeting for the 51st Daytona 500.
It had been a long time coming.
But you know what?
Every driver and every crew chief in that meeting gave Parks a long standing ovation. They knew. They all knew.
After that, Helton and NASCAR chairman Brian France accompanied Parks out to a replica of the '40 Ford coupe Byron drove to the '49 championship. There was a photo session.
A small crowd gathered, mainly out of curiosity. They recognized Helton and France, and were fascinated by the old coupe.
"Who's the guy in the hat?" somebody in the jostling crowd asked me.
"Somebody who was more important to the beginning of this sport than Big Bill France himself," I said. "His name is Raymond Parks."