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Minter: Racing Loses A Treasure

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, June 20 2010

Raymond Parks, a key figure in the early development of American stock car racing, died on Sunday. (Photo courtesy of ISC Archives/Getty Images)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Atlanta, Ga. – One of the pleasant parts of being a motorsports writer in the Atlanta area years ago was getting to visit on a regular basis with a true legend of the sport – Raymond Parks, who died Sunday at age 96.

When I first started frequenting Mr. Parks’ liquor store and office on Northside Drive, Mr. Parks was all but forgotten by most of the racing world. Even in the early 1990s, he wasn’t in the Stock Car Hall of Fame at Darlington or the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega.

His racing career was largely forgotten as NASCAR experienced an explosive period of growth, a period in which it tried to distance itself from the moonshiner past that Parks was a part of.

Fortunately, all that changed over time and Parks got his due from the NASCAR world. He was inducted in numerous halls of fame and was an honored guest for the opening ceremonies at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte last month.

But back in the day, when I first started going by his place, it was like a hall of fame.

The store front, except for the removal of an awning, looked exactly as it did back in the 40s, when he’d line up his immaculate race cars, drivers, trophies and a pretty girl or two for a photo op out front.

Treasured pieces of NASCAR history, trophies and such, were sitting on shelves for visitors to not only see but touch and discuss with the man whose cars won them.

Mr. Parks was a quiet, modest man, somewhat secretive. That possibly came from his days in the illegal liquor trade, something he did and never denied.

When you called Mr. Parks to set up an interview, he’d answer by saying the last four digits of his telephone number. But he was always accommodating.

Racing historians occasionally would send him copies of books he’d been interviewed for. If he had two of the same one, he’d insist that I take one. Those books are among my most treasured racing keepsakes.

One of my favorite stories was about a time when his multi-car team decided to start an extra car in a race at Langhorne, Pa., and Parks drove the car himself.

He talked about how nervous he was the night before the big race. He said he barely slept.

But once the race started, he showed extraordinary skill, driving through the field to second place before turning his car over to one of his drivers who had dropped out with mechanical problems.

Another favorite story was from the first Southern 500 at Darlington, when tire wear was a huge issue.

There was a photo in one of his scrapbooks, showing him in the shirt and tie he always wore, helping change tires on one of his cars.

He confided that most of those tires came from cars belonging to unsuspecting fans who had parked in the infield.

Mr. Parks also talked about his cousin, Lloyd Seay, who was one of stock car racing’s most talented drivers in the days before NASCAR. Seay drove Parks’ car to a win at Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta on Labor Day, 1939, then was shot the next day in a dispute over who was to pay for sugar that was to be used making moonshine.

For years, Mr. Parks tended Seay’s grave in a Dawsonville cemetery.

Mr. Parks quit racing in the early 1950s, saying he needed to concentrate on making a living.

But for years afterward, he continued to travel to Daytona each February for Speedweeks, an event his cars ruled in the early days when races were held on the old beach-road couse but later moved to the superspeedway.

Most years he sat in the grandstands for the Daytona 500. In later years, he could be seen getting the VIP treatment in the garage at Daytona, a track built by Bill France Sr., one of his former drivers and a man who relied heavily on Parks to get stock car racing pointed toward the big time.

Seeing Mr. Parks being treated like royalty, as he deserved, seemed a long ways away from those visits to his office 20 something years before when he was for the most part a forgotten man.

And those old trophies we used to look over in his office? They have been entrusted to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Hopefully it won’t be long before he’s inducted himself. I’m convinced from my discussions with him that Bill France might not have made a go of NASCAR without Mr. Parks and his immaculate, fast cars and his colorful drivers.

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, June 20 2010
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