About ten years ago, I found myself at a party that had long-since ended. The pizzas were cold and the soda had all warmed to room temperature, but I was still there because I simply didn’t have anywhere better to be. Walking around aimlessly, somebody called from the other side of the room, “Hey! You and your brother are into hot rods. You guys want to go to the Winternationals in Pomona?”
Recognizing the voice, I queried how Mike – a guy I knew only socially – had landed tickets to the NHRA event. Sounding glad to be rid of them, he exhaled, “My grandpa gets ‘em for free every year. He used to work for the NHRA, so he gets a bunch of ‘em.”
“What did your grandpa do?” I asked. Mike didn’t know, saying that he and his grandfather weren’t close. Reaching a conversational dead end, I was ready to let it go when he concluded, “OK, I’ll let Grandpa Wally know that you guys want to go.”
Then it donned on me: Mike’s last name was Parks. His grandfather was none other than Wally Parks.
Mike was exactly the opposite of what you would call a “car guy.” Mike loved sports. He was a jock and knew nothing about cars. He couldn’t even drive a stick. If I recall, Mike drove a Toyota Tercel. But somehow, his grandfather was one of the single-most important persons in hot rodding. And I don’t think Mike even cared.
Less than a year ago, a gentleman named Ray Halladay passed away. Ray was a key fixture at Lions Drag Strip, what was once one of the single-most important drag strips in the nation. Due to its near-zero sea-level and dense, cool ocean air, Lions was the strip to go to to set world records. There, Ray worked alongside Mickey Thompson during the heydays of sanctioned drag racing.
Ray served as the Stock Car Director there and even wrote the AHRA rules for years following; many of which were adopted into the NHRA. Behind the wheel of his 1937 Buick straight-eight, Ray competed with his brother-in-law, Vince Spinosa; together they hold a B-Class Stock record that still stands today. Later, Ray and Vince earned Top Eliminator, which is, to those who know, a huge honor.
Not only that, but Ray was also a salt bed pioneer at Lakes El Mirage and Muroc. Yet, despite these accolades, Ray Halladay was never a celebrity. No tracks, coffee table books or race series are dedicated in his honor. No, Ray was just a normal car guy who lived with his wife in a modest home in Garden Grove, California.
I learned recently that Ray owned an original ’67 427 Impala that he wished to hear fire up once more before he died. Calling in some favors, Ray had arranged to have a new big block built. When the day arrived, Ray stood on his porch observing the unveiling. When asked if Ray would like the honors of firing up the big Impala, he simply smiled and said, “You boys know what you’re doing.”
The big Chevrolet fired up, idled on its lopey cam, and lit off a couple throaty revs. Ray stood transfixed, listening to the thrumming. Satisfied, he thanked the men for their work, shook their hands and walked back in his house. Laying down for an afternoon nap, Ray quietly, peacefully passed away ten minutes later.
I never got to know Ray Halladay personally. But I have peered over the fence of Carson Auto Wrecking at the barren rail yard that was once Lions Drag Strip. I got to shake Dick Landy’s hand. I even got to work on the original #2060 ’68 Sox & Martin Barracuda for a couple days. The shame isn’t that time is slowly taking these treasures from us, it’s that so many vanish unnoticed.
There is a broadening gap between generations and I don’t think enough is being done to bridge it. I was lucky, I have friends whose fathers drove Chevettes and AMC Pacers in high school when ’68 GTOs were $250. Thankfully, I was taught early. Sure, many of these guys think muscle cars are “cool” but don’t know how this period shaped America’s history; the music, the movies, the look and feel. It’s more than just cars, its culture.
If we want these cars to survive, if we want the legacy of these men who made and raced these cars to survive, if we want this chapter in America’s story to survive, we need to be emissaries. We need to be educators and proselytizers to those who don’t know better. It’s on us, guys. Otherwise, we will watch our history disappear as generation after generation grows up in ignorance.
Light ‘em up,