Commentary

Parks' passion fueled early NASCAR

Updated: June 21, 2010, 2:25 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Raymond ParksRusty Jarrett/Getty ImagesRaymond Parks, center, posed with NASCAR president Mike Helton, left, and chairman Brian France in front of a replica of one of Parks' storied Ford coupes at the 2009 Daytona 500.

One of the deepest tragedies ever in stock car racing occurred Sunday.

Raymond Parks died, at 96, without having been inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, or even selected for it.

An obscure figure to the public, he was a titan to the knowing.

No greater or more concise tribute could be paid him than in one comment, in the ESPN Conversation, on the initial news story of his death.

"Thank you for NASCAR."

Those were the perfect, all-encompassing words to the memory of Raymond Parks from one of the knowing, someone under the screen name of "saturdaynight92."

Parks' death was doubly tragic on Father's Day, for he was in so many ways the biological father of NASCAR.

The legal father, Bill France Sr., couldn't have made it without him -- without the money loaned, the fancy pace cars and fabulous race cars, the dashing, colorful, charismatic drivers who became NASCAR's first champions.

Far deeper run the roots of NASCAR through Raymond Parks than just the fact the first two champion drivers won in his cars, Fonty Flock in 1948 in modifieds and then Red Byron in '49 in "Strictly Stock," ancestor of the Sprint Cup series.

The soul, the spirit, the guts of NASCAR all sprang from the passion of Parks, long before there was a NASCAR.

He landed on the streets of Atlanta during the late 1920s as a runaway teenager from the North Georgia mountains.

He staked himself by running moonshine, then took that seed money and became a benevolent kingpin of Atlanta's underworld -- slot machines, numbers running -- along with the legit businesses of jukeboxes, vending machines and bonded whiskey in legal liquor stores.

Through it all he never acted like a punk or a tough guy; he always kept his dignity and his kindness, always behaved more like one of Atlanta's most sophisticated businessmen, always was dapper in the finest hats and tailored suits.

Around the downtown Atlanta garage of Red Vogt, who souped up cars for bootleggers and federal revenuers alike -- although the bootleggers could afford finer equipment -- Parks let two of his cousins, Roy Hall and Lloyd Seay, convince him to enter the fledgling sport called "stock car racing." They would be his drivers.

[+] EnlargeRaymond D. Parks
Worth Canoy/Icon SMIRaymond Parks, seen here in 2002, was the last surviving member of the group that founded NASCAR in 1947.

The sport had begun among moonshine barons betting on who had the fastest whiskey cars and most skilled drivers ("trippers"). They would settle the bets by racing in pastures in the dead of night.

In 1939, Atlanta's "Indy of the South," Lakewood Speedway, legitimized liquor-car racing by hosting its first public "stock car" race.

Seay had never run on an oval, or a dirt track, but at age 19 he was a veteran moonshine runner, so the race was easy. He won in Parks' car, "And we sho' 'nough got the fever then," Parks once told me.

By the summer of '41, with world war on the horizon, Parks' team roamed the South, winning everywhere they went. Vogt was responsible for getting the cars to the track -- freshly painted, sparkling clean, without a dent in them, and by Parks' orders, they stood out from the mud-spattered jalopies they raced against.

As for Parks, Hall and Seay, they would hurtle down the highways of the South in Parks' '41 Cadillac, wide open, maybe 110 mph, while Parks slumbered peacefully in the back seat, his trust absolute in either of his ace trippers who might be at the wheel.

Occasionally Parks would field a third car for another driver sometimes down on his luck, named Bill France.

France was trying to establish himself at organizing races, especially on the beach at Daytona. Seay and Hall purely mesmerized the crowds there, Seay by flying through the North Turn with his left-side wheels up in the air and his left arm propped up in the window while he drove with one hand ... and Hall by remarking rakishly after one victory that, sure, he'd be back to Daytona next time, "If I'm still alive."

Late that summer, Seay won three straight "championship" stock car races in eight days, the first on the beach at Daytona on Aug. 24. The following Sunday he won at High Point, N.C., and then on Monday, Labor Day, he won at Lakewood in Atlanta.

The next morning, back in North Georgia, Seay was shot and killed by a cousin in a bootleggers' quarrel. He was 21. The yet-unborn NASCAR had already lost its first great charismatic driver.

After Seay was buried in the cemetery at Dawsonville, a magnificent tombstone appeared mysteriously at the head of his grave, featuring a permanently sealed photograph of him in the window of a '39 Ford coupe carved into the granite.

Raymond Parks would never admit to me that he commissioned and placed the stone, but everybody in North Georgia knew he had.

Then he went off to World War II and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, surviving for three straight weeks in the same foxhole at one point.

Pulling his various businesses back together after the war, Parks wholeheartedly participated in France's historic "Streamline Hotel" meetings in December 1947. Indeed it was his chief mechanic, Vogt, who coined the name, National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, and the acronym, NASCAR.

In February of '48, the first NASCAR race ever held was won by Red Byron, on the beach at Daytona. With Detroit car production still languishing from the war effort, the cars were all "modifieds" -- which was to say, liquor cars.

In Parks' cars, Fonty Flock won the first NASCAR championship ever, in the season of '48. In Parks' cars, Byron won the first "Strictly Stock" championship, now the Sprint Cup championship, in '49.

By that point Roy Hall had run wild -- in fiery grief over Seay's death, I've always suspected -- running liquor again, getting arrested for driving crazily through the streets of Daytona Beach before one race, participating in a bank robbery in Georgia, then a shootout with police in Greensboro, N.C., then being extradited to Georgia to do time for the robbery. Returning to racing in '49, Hall suffered career-ending injuries.

I just think he's one of the greatest people I ever met in the sport.

-- Junior Johnson on Raymond Parks

Throughout the birth years of NASCAR, Parks had kept it afloat. He loaned Bill France money; loaned him new Cadillacs as pace cars; nurtured the entire concept of stock cars as brightly painted and clean, rather than ragtag jalopies.

"Anywhere he showed up, he had the best cars," first-round Hall of Fame inductee Junior Johnson said Sunday.

But with NASCAR safely off the ground, its first two championships won, Parks tired of fielding racing teams. He returned to Atlanta to run his liquor stores, and was largely forgotten in the NASCAR community.

Once, on a sweltering July day in Georgia, as he sat in his office in perfect shirt and tie and didn't shed a drop of sweat, I asked the aging Parks how much he reckoned he'd spent on racing.

"I have no idea," he said, still speaking guardedly, all those decades later. "No records were ever kept. We paid for everything in cash."

That seemed the perfect opening to see if he would open up about the slots and the numbers running, so I asked him how he came by all that cash to spend on racing.

He smiled, chuckled, then said in a soft voice, "Any way I could get it."

The resurrection of Raymond Parks' name began after stories were published about him during NASCAR's 50th anniversary year, 1997.

By Daytona 500 morning of 2009, NASCAR chairman Brian France and president Mike Helton were posing for pictures with the legendary figure -- feeble, mostly deaf, but still dapper in expensive suit, shirt, tie and hat -- in the garage area. They posed in front of a replica of one of his storied Ford coupes.

And so a sort of Raymond Parks renaissance began. But the groundswell wasn't strong enough to get him into NASCAR's new Hall of Fame in balloting last year for induction in the inaugural class this year.

But Parks remained a fully dignified and decent man even in the face of injustice, attending Hall of Fame ceremonies last month. He was far too humble to complain about not making it in on the first election.

I was the one who informed Junior Johnson that Raymond Parks had died Sunday. Junior is among the last of those who remember Parks and his team in their primes.

"He contributed money and stuff to help 'em get it off the ground," Junior said of Parks and NASCAR. "I'd have to give him credit for being the first contributor to the sport. He's been an asset all his life to it. Just a great person. He backed it, plumb up to the day his end came.

"I just think he's one of the greatest people I ever met in the sport."

Bill France Sr., the public figure whom the biological father of NASCAR had helped out from the background, was the first inductee.

As for Parks, "I think he would have loved to have gone in on the first ballot," Johnson said. "But if people felt like somebody should go in ahead of him, he would understand. He would not [allow] talk about it wasn't done right and that kind of stuff."

Since Junior Johnson made it in on the first round, "everybody has asked me who should go in next," he said. "I said Raymond Parks would be the first one, and Lee Petty second."

You can bet Junior Johnson was already wielding his enormous, heart-and-soul influence to get Parks voted in. Maybe it will be easier for him now. But the saddest part is that Parks won't be there to be inducted.

"I'm just sorry to hear it," Johnson said of the death. "I talked to him down at Charlotte [at last month's Hall of Fame ceremonies]. He was in pretty bad shape.

"I was hoping he would last 'til he got in. But I'm just sorry that he's passed away."

As it is, we can speak only to the memory of Raymond Parks. It is well that, in the ESPN Conversation, "saturdaynight92" has put it so eloquently for all of us.

Thank you for NASCAR.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.

ALSO SEE