Monday, January 12, 2009
Remembering the Roots of NASCAR
So, you might be wondering who the old codger standing with Dale Earnhardt in the picture above might be. At the time this picture was taken, the gentleman on the left was somewhere around 90 years old and still working in his office every day. His name is Raymond Parks, and though you've probably never heard of him, the man standing on the right, the Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt, probably owed his career to the man he's standing with. Virtually every driver, crew chief, owner, crew member, and anyone else associated with NASCAR owes their livelihood to the old man, Raymond Parks.
Though he left the sport for good in around 1955, Raymond Parks sparked what was first known simply as stock car racing into what later became NASCAR, the National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing. Parks ran away from home, an impoverished farm near Dawsonville, GA when he was only a teenager, seeking to find a better life. Young Raymond became a whiskey maker, and later, more importantly to this article, a whiskey runner. From a runaway beginning during tough times in the early 1930's, Parks quickly became an entrepreneur in Atlanta during the mid 1930's, and eventually a very rich man. He made moonshine, and he delivered it. In other words, he learned out to drive. What made this endeavor especially interesting was that this pursuit of success took place during America's period of prohibition. In other words, alcohol was against the law, and Raymond Parks operated on the other side of the law.
Raymond Parks eventually found the new found fad of stock car racing, basically begun by his friends and foes alike in the moonshine industry. These moonshine runners quickly learned how to build better and faster cars in a necessary attempt to outrun or at least outwit the law officers who were constantly in pursuit of this band of outlaws. Just to blow off steam, some of these outlaws gathered in cow pastures all over the south land to see just who was the best driver. Then, as is the case now, bragging rights were an important part of a driver's psyche. No driver who likes to drive fast likes to get beat. Some things never change.
Raymond Parks, through his various moonshine running endeavors, and an illegal lottery, or numbers racket as it would be called today, became a rich man in Atlanta in the 1930's. Parks began branching out into other more 'legitimate' industries. His profits continued to grow. One of Raymond Parks' interests turned to stock car racing, since he, with the benefit of a mechanic named Red Vogt, had built some of the best moonshining cars around the north Georgia area.
To the south of Georgia, at Daytona Beach, Florida, a man named Bill France began to organize and promote races at a track that was half on the beach sand at Daytona, and half on the main road through the area, the paved A1A. The races promised a good payout, and Raymond Parks had some cars built, and put some of his own drivers in the cars. The drivers were his cousins Lloyd Seay and Roy Hall, who had run 'shine for Parks in the past, and were known as some of the best runners in the Atlanta area. Pictured below is Lloyd Seay, Raymond Parks, and Roy Hall, from left to right. In a lot of ways, this group of cousins became the first super team in stock car racing. They won races at the new Daytona track and many more tracks, including the famed Lakewood track in Atlanta.
When Raymond Parks started his team, he put his drivers in the best cars he could afford, with tricked out engines, courtesy of Red Vogt, and proceeded to win races. Parks himself was not unknown to drive some of the race cars himself, since he has once been one of the best drivers to take a load of illegal alcohol down highway 9 from Dawsonville to Atlanta. Parks eventually went to prison in Ohio for 9 months, his background having caught up with him finally. Roy Hall was to spend more time in prison, his indiscretions creating much more flak for him than had his cousin and car owner. Lloyd Seay was killed by a relative over a debt, and brutally, the super team was dissolved. After Parks came back from prison, he continued to build his business until World War II happened. Still a young man, Parks was drafted into the US Army.
Raymond Parks served in the infantry in Europe, and fought bravely during the legendary Battle of the Bulge in 1944, which was Germany's final attempt at pushing the Allies into the sea, as they had done 4 year before at Dunkirk. The Allies prevailed, and eventually Parks rotated back to his hometown in late 1945. Raymond Parks was no fool. His sister had basically run his business while he had been away at war.
Quickly, Parks returned to his ventures, one of which was racing. With his two drivers out of hand, he turned to another World War II veteran, Red Byron.
Red Byron had raced mostly in Alabama and sometimes in Georgia prior to the war. He joined the Army and tried to qualify as pilot, back in the day when the Army and Air Force were one. He was turned down due to vision requirements, but became a gunner and engineer with the Army Air Force. He was sent to Alaska to help fend of the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands. In an incident in which he was a crew member on a B-24 bomber, Red Byron took major wounds in his left leg, among other wounds. Japanese flak had possibly ended Byron's career as a racer.
Back at the base in Alaska, Byron was sent back to Seattle, and there, the Army doctors wanted to amputate his left leg. Byron refused, and eventually was sent back to a hospital near the home of his family in Colorado. Though Red Byron was told repeatly that his left leg would kill him if it were not amputated, Byron rehabilitated himself at his family home and headed back to Alabama, and eventually Atlanta. Byron wanted to race. Eventually Robert "Red" Byron hooked up with Raymond Parks. Though his left leg was not functioning properly, Red Byron persisted on becoming a racer. Mechanic Red Vogt invented a series of pins that allowed Byron to keep his left foot on the clutch pedal, though Byron himself had to twist his body in an opposite direction to keep from putting too much pressure on the clutch itself. Byron, looking very old beyond his age, appears below.
From a long to a short story, Red Byron became the first true NASCAR champion. He didn't race for many years after that, but he did indeed become the first true champion of what we now know as NASCAR. This WWII vet, disabled as he was, still had the drive and determination to become the best of the best. For a few years, Red Byron, even with his war disable leg, dominated the sport. He became NASCAR's first true champion, and today my hat's off for Red Byron, who died many years ago. Red Byron was a true champion, and we as fans of NASCAR should remember how this sport began and who its first true heroes were. People like Raymond Parks and Red Byron. I invite any of you who would like to read more on the subject to check out at Neal Thompson.com