Thursday, June 24, 2010

Raymond Parks, Rest in Peace (and Thanks for NASCAR)

A few years ago I was browsing the shelves at my local library and I stumbled upon a book called Driving With the Devil, written by a man named Neal Thompson. I checked it out of the library and took it home and that evening read the entire thing from cover to cover. A fascinating tale of the sometimes nefarious origins of NASCAR, the book also explained a few things to me about life in Georgia and the old south---I didn’t know that the red clay soil that lies under us all is really only good for growing cotton and corn, for instance, and I never knew that that same corn happened to be the perfect strain for making moonshine whiskey. Someone had to transport that moonshine from the remote stills located in the north Georgia mountains, and it took some skillful driving to evade the federal agents who were constantly trying to bust up the stills and seize the whiskey. Some of those skilled moonshiners and drivers would become an integral part of one of the most beloved sports on the planet.

One of them was a man named Raymond Parks, who is the focal point of Thompson’s book. A moonshiner at a young age, he was smart enough to evade the authorities for a number of years, was finally caught and sent to prison for 9 months in the mid 1930’s. Following his release he returned to moonshine for a while, and after racking up a small fortune got out of the game. He invested in a fleet of cars that raced in many of the small tracks around the south, and in December, 1947, , as reported in the NY Times, “Parks was among some three dozen racing figures who gathered at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach to create the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing under the direction of the driver and race promoter Bill France Sr.”

In 1948, a Parks-owned car, modified by mechanic Red Vogt in a garage that still stands at Linden and Spring Streets in Atlanta, and driven by war hero Red Byron, won the first series of races under the NASCAR banner. In that and subsequent years many of the drivers were men who had gotten their start running ‘shine all around the state of Georgia, a fact that the France family tried to keep buried when NASCAR took a more family-friendly turn in later years.

Reading the book, it came to me as a surprise to find that Parks was still alive.

A little research revealed that he was still, in his 90’s , in the liquor business, albeit legally this time, in a shop at Northside and 17th Street in Atlanta. I also discovered that he still came to work every day, fully dressed in a suit and tie. I was doing a lot of courier work at the time and passed by there every day, never knowing what, and who, was inside. I purchased a copy of the book and headed to Northside Drive to see if I could get an autograph. I knocked at the office door on the side of the building and was greeted by a very tall, impeccably dressed southern gentleman, who invited me in with a wave of his hand. I had heard that Mr. Parks was suffering from the early stages of dementia but it was nowhere in evidence on that day. He graciously signed my copy of the book with his name and the numbers of his winning cars in those early races. Afterwards he gave me a little tour of his two rooms full of historical and impressive NASCAR memorabilia, which included the winning trophy from that very first race in 1948. Some of that collection has since been donated to a museum.

Raymond Parks died on Sunday, June 20, at the age of 96. He was the last surviving member of the group that convened in Daytona to basically create NASCAR. It was an honor and a privilege to meet him. On behalf of racing fans, thank you , Mr. Parks.

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