~ Byron's Gasser Madness ~

~ Legendary Dragstrips Panel Discussion ~

Racing fans treated to stories from the track roadster era at Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum

POMONA, Calif.  (Dec. 2, 2005) - The Hall of Champions at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum lived up to its name as four racing icons gathered with more than 200 devoted fans for the Legends Tour Lunch.  The recently held event corresponded with the opening of the Museum's new track roadster exhibit based on Dick Wallen's new book Roaring Roadsters: the Road to Indy, which explores the California Roadster Associations (CRA) history from 1946 through 1956.

Rounds of applause and waves of laughter were common during the event as Indy 500 winners Parnelli Jones and Jim Rathmann, along with Walt James and Art Chrisman, told stories and fielded questions from guest moderator Bob "Voice of the Indy 500" Jenkins, ABC's play-by-play analyst for the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing." 

"It was a simpler time when these men were behind the wheel," said Jenkins.  "I grew up in Liberty, Indiana, where the day of the Indy 500 was more important than Christmas.  Names like Rathmann and Jones were sacred.  Hoover Motor Express, Dean Van Lines * even the sponsors were magic."

It was a celebration of the long and storied history of the sport, with many hallowed racing figures in attendance.  Ninety-two year old NHRA founder and Museum namesake, Wally Parks was even on hand to say a few words.  "I can't say how much I appreciate the turnout here today," said Parks.  "When I look around this room so many precious memories come flooding back.  "For instance, I first remember seeing J.C. Agajanian in his cowboy hat at Southern Ascot Speedway more than 70 years ago struggling to push his sprint car down the track.  When I went down to help, I couldn't have known that it was the start of a friendship that would help perpetuate this form of racing."

J.C. Agajanian Jr., who was there to discuss his family's 50-year history promoting the famed Turkey Night Grand Prix, praised Parks for his lifelong involvement in the sport.  

Said Agajanian, "When you helped my father push his car * you pushed yourselves into history."

On the other end of the spectrum, 23-year old USAC National Sprint Car Champion Levi Jones was seen with honoree Jim Rathmann perusing the historic track roadsters in the exhibit hall. 

"I've got tremendous respect for the original roadster drivers, and I appreciate everything they've done for the sport," said Jones.
To which Rathmann responded, "Hell, we didn't know any better.  Back in my day, seat belts weren't for safety * they were for back support."

Greg Sharp, curator of the Museum, began the program with a brief history of hot rodding and how the sport has evolved over the decades.

"The American Automobile Association considered this form of racing dangerous, reckless and a menace," said Sharp.  "Today, the Automobile Club of Southern California -- the Triple A's largest affiliate -- sponsors this Museum, which we consider a living tribute to the sport."

After introducing the participants, Jenkins described his first Indianapolis 500 experience.  "During my first Indy way back in 1960, I was convinced Jim Rathmann was waving to me in the grandstands every time he rounded Turn 4.  It was an exciting experience for a young man."

Rathmann later chided Jenkins saying, "You must be a coward because you never waved back!"

The honorees each admitted to being street racers before taking their sport to the track.  Rathmann, in particular, was not reluctant to describe his early days competing on Los Angeles' many boulevards and avenues.    

"I think I held the record for most speeding tickets in Los Angeles," recalled Rathmann.  "At one time, I had accumulated 48 outstanding tickets, four of which I managed to collect in one lunch hour."

Rathmann added, "I had a lot of trouble with cops back then, and I still do today!"

Parnelli Jones described an instance when a motorcycle police officer pulled him over for speeding.  "He sidled right up to my window, leaned in, looked me square in the eye and asked, 'Who do you think you are?  Parnelli Jones?'"

Jenkins asked the panelists to share their feelings on the track roadster days, and while all had fond memories, each of the men agreed that early incarnations of the sport weren't always practiced with safety in mind.  Lengths of rope were substituted for seat belts while a t-shirt and a pair of jeans was the standard uniform.

When asked if he ever had any desire to race dirt roadsters, founding member of the 200 mph club at Bonneville Salt Flats, Art Chrisman said, "I tried it, and it scared the (expletive) out of me."

"I remember one particular day when Jim Rathmann forgot his helmet," chuckled Jones.  "He was more worried about being identified correctly then keeping his skull intact, so he painted his number on his forehead. 

Continued Jones, "Because of that kind of behavior, I've always felt responsible for keeping Rathmann alive.  After all, he's the oldest past winner of the Indianapolis 500, and I'm next in line!"

Jones, who won Indy in 1963, also reflected on his heartbreaking loss in 1967 when a small, inexpensive part broke on the Pratt & Whitney Turbine he was driving for Andy Granatelli.

"There were only a couple more laps to go, and I could've pulled ahead any time I wanted," said Jones.  "It was a tough loss, but I also knew winning wouldn't have been as good as the first time." 

Some of the anecdotes were revealing. 

Rathmann spent a few years in the Midwest racing for Andy Granatelli at Soldier's Field after seeing a $10K winner's pot advertised in Speed Sport News.

"I became a regular driver for Granatelli," said Rathmann.  "Sometimes a driver would get to $400 finish second just to keep the excitement level up among the crowd.  It was also standard practice to send the ambulance out with its lights blaring and sirens howling each time there was a crash even if it was minor with no injuries."

Walt James, long-time president of the CRA, revealed how he began his 20-plus year stint leading the organization.

"I was on my way back from Clovis (Calif.) with Bud Winfield, designer of the Novi.  There was an accident and Bud was killed, and I ended up spending the next two months in the hospital."

"There I was in traction when one day I got the news I had been elected president of the CRA.  The thing was, I didn't even know I was running for office!  It seems nobody else wanted the job." 

A feeling of levity filled the Hall of Champions as the panelists - all long-time friends - traded barbs and shared stories with an audience made mostly up of other racing notables.  As the discussion continued, it was easy to see that Walt James' simple life philosophy translates well to events like the Legends Tour Lunch.

"If you talk a better race," said James. "You'll have a better ride."

Named for the founder of the National Hot Rod Association, the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum houses the very roots of hot rodding. Scores of famous vehicles spanning American motorsports history are on display, including winning cars representing 50 years of drag racing, dry lakes and salt-flat racers, oval track challengers and exhibits describing their colorful backgrounds.
The Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., PST. Current NHRA members are admitted free. Admission for non-members is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors 60 and older, $3 for juniors six through 15, and free for children under the age of five. The Museum is also available for private parties, meetings, corporate events, weddings and special group tours. The Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum is located at Fairplex Gate 1, 1101 W. McKinley Ave. in Pomona. For further information on special exhibits, museum events or directions, call 909/622-2133 or visit www.nhra.com/museum.