Part 3: Wally Parks was the Forrest Gump of 1956.
One face kept coming into view while researching 1956’s magazines, movies, television programs, and digitized black-andwhite negatives in the Petersen Publishing Co. photo archive. Like a reverse Clark Kent who ducks into a phone booth and comes out wearing business attire, Wally Parks made it his mission to stand up for truth, justice, and the American way of recycling cast-off frames, bodies, and engines into loud, low, menacing contraptions that scared the crap out of decent citizens. “Early hot rodders were perceived as the gang bangers of their time,” he’d explain in later decades.
Mere months after Hollywood introduces John and Jane Q. Public to knife-wielding, suicidal hot rodders driving off cliffs, the real-life Jim Stark is really dead. What little is left of James Dean’s tin-foil Porsche-factory race car is being repurposed for the show circuit, accompanied by scary signage inaccurately blaming excessive speed (instead of Donald Turnupseed’s lane-crossing ’50 Ford mild custom). Hot on the heels of Rebel Without a Cause, Hollywood hurries teen-exploitation films such as Hot Rod Girl (“Teenage Terrorists Tearing up the Streets!”). Politicians worldwide are seizing on the previous September’s mass decapitation of France’s sports-car fans and a rash of U.S. stock-car deaths as a no-lose campaign issue, demonizing auto racing as an unnecessary evil threatening constituents’ safety. The International Association of Police Chiefs is lobbying local law enforcement and governments to shut down dragstrips, preaching that organized competition only encourages and increases racing in the streets. Californians’ outcry in the wake of Ernie Mcafee’s fatal crash ends the Pebble Beach road race.
As if such intense opposition wasn’t challenge enough for anyone charged with running the National Hot Rod Association or HOT ROD magazine, Wally was both of those guys. There he is on network television, congratulating Chester A. Riley for helping clean-cut hot rodders get their own dragstrip (to be Nhra-sanctioned, naturally). Here’s another of his HRM
editorials ripping shameless politicians, shortsighted cops, or unethical promoters for reinforcing unfair misconceptions. The Mobil Oil–financed Safety Safari is another brainstorm to be managed: Wally’s carload of Johnny Appleseeds, crisscrossing the country all summer on a shoestring budget. There’s also his National Drag Championships in Kansas City, now living up to its name by drawing entrants all the way from Hawaii Territory. One night later, the event’s founder and director is back inside of that conservative suit, on stage, amidst the classiest trophy presentation ever associated with America’s youngest form of auto racing.
Perhaps never before or since the mid-’50s has our hobby faced truly existential threats on so many fronts. Between crises, there was also a little publication called HOT ROD to put together each month. Parks must’ve been relieved to see this season end, but he’d soon be tested as never before by two political decisions: an industrywide agreement to end corporate racing sponsorship, and Wally’s own ban of fuels other than pump gasoline. The next round of archive images will bring us behind the scenes to places and people photographed in 1957, but seldom or never seen in print.
> Contrary to the episode title “Juvenile Delinquent,” hot rods and young hot rodders were positively presented in a 1955 episode of Thelifeofriley, the popular sitcom starring William Bendix and Wesley Morgan as father and son. To our knowledge, this...
> None of our L.A. sources was able to name this guy, but the search unexpectedly produced history worth mentioning about North Hollywood’s C-T Automotive (behind photographer), the crankshaft company’s sprint car, even the roller rink beyond. American...
> National Roadster Show founder Al Slonaker’s spirited signs immediately identify the Oakland Exposition Building. Though the Petersen monthlies rarely devoted much space to the event itself, countless car features were shot before and after in the...
> It’s easy to see why Lee Woods, a Trend Inc.-petersen Publishing Co. switchboard operator, often doubled as a model for photographic director Bob D’olivo. She’d be in her mid-to-late eighties today.