As told exclusively to
Throughout his long career developing hot rodding and drag racing in the United States, Wally Parks kept a detailed journal relating his candid thoughts at the time. That journal was obtained and edited by his son Richard who has kindly given permission for Eurodragster.com to publish extracts from it relating to the period when British drag racing was being founded. The opinions are those of Wally, who is referred to by Richard as ‘Parks’ or occasionally ‘my father’.
This year is the 60th anniversary of the First British International Drag Festival and this part includes the selection of American drivers to join the trip to England, the involvement of the British Drag Racing Association and Drag Festivals Ltd, the RAC forbidding any advertising on race cars and a tentative schedule for shipping and lodging.
The story was produced by Richard Parks, photos, images chosen by Nick Pettitt and John Hunt and published by editor of Eurodragster.com Simon Groves. We all thank Jim Miller of the American Hot Rod Foundation for scanning the photos and adding captions.
Word had been spreading ever since the 1963 British-American drag racing series that there would be another event scheduled for 1964 and that the NHRA would be involved. On March 3rd Dave Strickler of the “Dodge Boys” which also included Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, wrote to Parks and he was very interested in going if financial assistance could be provided. Strickler also needed as much time to prepare as possible as the British Festival was so close on the heels of the US Nats.
From March 18th to the 26th Parks wrote to ten individuals who had representative cars in different classes that were exceptional vehicles. But the criteria for his choices was that the driver and team must represent the highest ideals of America and the NHRA; character counted for far more than simply a fast car. Parks ruled out trouble-makers, braggarts, cheaters, back-stabbers and anyone else who wouldn’t set the highest standards among American drag racers.
This was the list he chose first; George Montgomery, John Mazmanian, Danny Ongais, Dave Strickler, Tony Nancy, Don Garlits, Ronnie Sox, Charles Brown, Jeep Hampshire, and Charlie Smith. If you weren’t on the list that did not mean that you weren’t quality material; this was only his first effort at rounding up a representable team. Also notice that Don Garlits made the list on the first go- around indicating that he thought highly of Garlits’ moral fiber even though he argued with his methods.
He also did not turn away drivers who raced on the AHRA or other circuits in drag racing. Parks wanted a team that ran well and would represent the highest quality of men America could offer.
In the future when he argued with Don he would refer back to the 1964 British Drag Racing Festival with words such as this, “Don, I thought enough of you to send you to England and this is how you repay me?” It must have infuriated Garlits to be reminded of this all the time. Garlits is a moral and Christian man and though he had a temper there is no indication in the records that he ever committed any act that would be considered outside the bounds of morality. Parks realized that; what irritated my father about Don was not his character as much as his inability to see eye to eye with Parks.
Some of those that didn’t make it...
Gerry Belton wrote to Parks on April 3rd and said he would forgo the “tapes” and send letters from now on. Belton said "The Royal Automobile Club (RAC) forbids any advertising (decals) on race cars as motorsports is all amateur based in Great Britain. He is trying to overturn that ruling and if he can’t he suggested that the event sponsors simply ignore “Auntie” RAC. Without decals sponsorship may dry up and die and the event would have to be cancelled.
"The British organizers have allotted 500 pounds (roughly $1000-1200 American dollars) to help defray shipping costs and may be able to help out with living costs of room and board for the American teams."
Belton said "The British public is still naïve and they see dragsters as the most interesting cars. He would prefer Parks only bring over ten dragsters and the Brits would find the necessary stock cars to round out the field." However, Belton realized that Parks knows more about this sport than the Brits do and will live with whatever decision the NHRA decides on concerning the type of cars that will be shipped over to England.
Belton explained that the British Drag Racing Association (BDRA) would be taking over from the Allard group and would run the Festival.
He asked Parks to accept a “Vice-Presidency” in the BDRA in order to indicate a sort of “Parenthood” from the NHRA. Belton would also correct the mention of who would be sponsoring the motorcycles and seek the approval of the AMA (American Motorcycle Association). Parks replied to “Gerry” Belton and said there is no shortage of dragsters willing to come but he felt mixing in some other cars would enhance the experience.
Another issue is the time frame; these dragsters will race at the Nationals and are concerned about the expenses. The drag racers make their living by appearing at drag races in America; even though they are eager it is a problem for them. Also the other kinds of non-dragster classes have factory sponsorship and that could prove vital.
Parks had considered all angles of promotion, not just merely spectator approval. It was essential for the BDRA to decide immediately as these drag racers are setting up their schedules with various American drag strips. My father also said he was pleased to accept an “official” status with the BDRA.
Buddy Martin wrote to Parks on April 6th and expressed interest in joining the British Festival. Parks had not heard from John Mazmanian and so wrote to him again on April 8th asking if he was interested in the British Festival. Parks wrote to Dave Strickler on April 9th and said that he couldn’t give him a definite answer on his acceptance until he heard back from the British contingent.
Parks’ eagerness often got him into trouble; he should have worked out a plan with the BDRA in January and then contacted the American racers. These drag racers had commitments to make and delays meant a loss of revenue for them. Bob Daniels wrote to Parks and asked him to consider Gordon Collett for the British tour. Parks answered Daniels on April 10th and added Collett to the list, but he still had no idea where the money was coming from to pay for expenses or how to avoid a conflict with the US Nats and the Championship Points races.
He was running out of time and the Brits still haven’t firmed up their goals and commitments. Gerry Belton wrote to Parks on April 21st and he was pleased with Parks’ suggestions for the cars chosen to represent the American team after seeing the April issue of HRM that showed these cars in action. Dean Delamont of the RAC asked about the ACCUS/FIA International certification process for records set in England by the drag cars.
It was a distinct possibility meaning that American cars racing in England could qualify whereas American cars in the US could not; how ironic that would be. Belton had to delay a further 2 days in supplying schedules and promotional material as the BDRA is waiting for word from a major British newspaper on whether they will sponsor the tour and if they do then more money can be allocated to the American teams for expenses.
Robert Keith of the Goodnight/Chaves/Keith/Williamson dragster out of San Jose wrote to Parks on April 23rd and asked to be considered for the British Festival. Parks replied and asked for details and gave more details about the requirements. Then he said if Keith was still interested he could put them on the standby list should another car drop out.
On May 8th Robert Keith replied to Parks’ letter of May 4th and said they were going to skip the US Nats in order to make the trip to England. They were sending the two men as required but there were others who wished to go and would pay their own way as long as they could stay close to the car and team.
Parks replied to Keith and said the British Festival had been pushed back a week and will begin on September 19th which will allow 12 days after the US Nats are concluded to make it to England by boat or plane. Dan Deuce (actually Dante Duce) of Las Vegas, Nevada was appointed coordinator of the American team, having been on the 1963 British tour as a driver and promoter. Keith’s persistence paid off and his team will represent the United States.
Don Garlits wrote to Parks on May 26th that he had given it a great deal of thought and would run in both the US Nats and the British tour. He asked if the NHRA was going to arrange for the transportation of the car and his trailer and he would be taking along a crew member and his wife Pat.
Parks replied on May 28th but this time the earliest date was September 13th and not the 19th. Had something changed or was the letter to Robert Keith in error? His letter to Garlits was a form letter similar to Keith’s but only differing from the dates.
Parks sent the same identical letter to six other people on May 28th ; they were George Montgomery, Ronnie Sox (and Buddy Martin), Dave Strickler, Tony Nancy, Jeep Hampshire (and Larry Stellings), and Danny Ongais. On June 6th my father typed out a note with the cars that he felt would make the trip to England; Don Garlits (AA/FD), Tommy Ivo (AA/FD), Jeep Hampshire (AA/FD), Tony Nancy (AA/D), Danny Ongais (AA/D), Robert Keith & Gary Goodnight (AA/D), George Montgomery (A/GS), Dante Duce (Dean Moon’s Moonbeam AA/MS), Sox & Martin (A/FX 427 Comet), Dave Strickler (Dodge) and an alternate in Art Malone (AA/FD).
Dave Strickler wrote to Parks on June 8th and said he wrote to Frank Wylie at Chrysler and asked for sponsorship help; finances were the only thing standing in his way of the tour. Strickler wrote to “Bill” and asked if he could pull strings with his department to help out with the finances on his tour of England.
Don Garlits wrote to Parks on June 11th and restated his interest in going to England; but Parks had been somewhat evasive in his answer to him on financial assistance. My father replied to Garlits on June 17th and reiterated what he had previously said and added a few more details but was vague on financial assistance. Parks had no choice as the BDRA couldn’t give any more information or assurance to my father and so he in turn couldn’t tell the American teams just how much there was in financial help.
Gerry Belton wrote on behalf of the Drag Festivals Ltd on June 13th to Parks and finally the Brits had figured out what my father had known for decades; time flies by very quickly when planning for a drag race. The disorganization among the BDRA had finally sunk in and the group looked around for a man capable enough to get the ball moving again and they picked on. Gerry Belton!
Now Belton was working full- time on the Drag Festivals Ltd and was on leave from Allard Motors. His wife was his secretary, and he was planning the publicity for the tour. The September 13th date was finally axed to the relief of Parks and the NHRA. The first race would be at Thruxton Aerodrome in Hampshire on September 19th and the track was in bad condition and needed repairs which the BDRA was in the process of fixing.
On the 20th the event will move to Chelveston RAF base near Northampton, which is two miles in length and in great condition. The second weekend the Festival will be racing at the Woodvale RAF base near Southport, Lancaster and the next day will move to Church Fenton, near Tadcaster in Yorkshire. The third weekend, on October 3rd the drag races will be at Kemble RAF base at Cirencester in Gloucester and the next day will return back to Thruxton where the races had begun and will conclude.
Belton scheduled six events tentatively at that point in time. Belton now mentioned the newspaper that was going to sponsor the event as Odhams Press Ltd and that the publicity campaign will begin shortly and is expected to reach the major newspapers and half of the population of the UK. The enthusiasm in the BDRA is wild over the list of cars Parks is bringing to England. Odhams Press wants to push the “women’s angle” and needs to know how many wives will be coming with their husbands. Belton needs biographies, statistics, photographs of the cars and drivers and other pertinent details for the publicity campaign.
The BDRA is also going after Mickey Thompson’s International Class F record and hopes to better it. If they do it will give them European status. Belton stated that the 500 pounds sterling will be augmented by 20% of the net proceeds to help with expenses, but he cannot guarantee how much that will be. He is also thrilled that Dante Duce was named the coordinator of the American teams as he is well thought of in England and is quite charming.
Horst H. Baumann wrote to Parks on June 14th and thanked the NHRA staff for arranging a tour of local California drag strips for his wife and himself. He got the necessary photographs for Stern magazine, a major periodical in Germany and will publish in other magazines as well. He asked if the American team visiting England could make an appearance in Germany as well. Parks sent identical letters around the middle of June to eight people; Dean Moon, Dave Strickler, George Montgomery, Danny Ongais, Larry Stellings (and Jeep Hampshire), Tony Nancy, Tommy Ivo, and Ronnie Sox (and Buddy Martin). It was almost identical to the previous letters that he sent out.
Charlie Smith replied to Parks’ March 26th letter almost three months late and said he would like to go if he wasn’t in the Points race at that point. Parks replied to Smith on June 25th and said the quota for England had been filled; rather than be cruel Parks was diplomatic and said Smith’s chances in the Points race was more important than his trip to England.
On June 22nd Parks set up a tentative schedule for shipping and lodging; the carrier would be ocean liner and it would leave New York City on September 9th or 11th; he had to know the size of the cars, trailers, gear and whether the crews could take five days to go by boat and accompany the car. Parks’ ancestors had come over on the Mayflower in a two to three month voyage and now the American team was going back to England in just five days.
Details, there were always details in my father’s life that had to be taken care of. Allen Friedrich wrote to Parks on June 23rd from England; he is a writer and reporter who assisted Wilson Springer and Ed Kretz while they were in the UK. Allen and others were working to overturn the RAC ban on decals and advertising on drag cars. He also said there is a possibility of a drag strip being built in England. He referred Joe Vanni from Rhode Island to Gerry Belton; Vanni had an S/SA car he wanted to race in the Festival.
Gerry Belton sent a telegram to Parks on June 24th that Alan Allard had run for an International record and took the Class E and F records from Mickey Thompson. It seemed so easy for the Brits to take advantage of FIA International records while the American drag racers struggled for international recognition; that would soon change.
Dante Duce wrote to Parks on June 24th to say that he was meeting with Dean Moon to see if the dragster was ready. He also contacted BOAC airline officials Rand and Whitaker about exchanging publicity for free freighting of the cars to England. Parks had been referred to BOAC by Lyle Kenyon Engel who had contacts with BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation). Since BOAC was owned by the British government, Parks would have to get approval for a swap of air freight for free publicity through their New York office.
Duce had been busy getting quotes for ocean liner shipping rates for passengers and race cars. He had also been getting estimates for lodging and food while in England. Bob Forestal, public relations for the NHRA, had also been busy and on June 29th he wrote to Colonel M. F. Casey of the US Air Force in Washington, DC. Forestal asked about free transportation aboard USAF planes to England and listed the number of race vehicles and their size and weight. There were six dragsters (Keith, Garlits, Nancy, Stellings, Ivo and Ongais), and four other vehicles (Sox, Moon, Strickler and Montgomery). The weight was approximately 46,000 pounds or 23 tons!
American Rodding Magazine editor Lyle Kenyon Engel came up with the idea of a competition to win tickets for two to travel to England for the First British International Drag Festival...
William E. “Farmer” Dismuke wrote to Gerry Belton on July 1st and asked what the British government's stand on citizen band radio frequencies are. The US allowed citizen band radio with a FCC license, but England had no such laws governing radio usage. Dismuke gave a series of frequencies that the NHRA used at its drag races; 26.965 (channel 1) through 27.255 (channel 23). This pointed out yet another difficulty for the NHRA expanding into foreign countries; it was hard enough to get the American states to cooperate much less foreign nations.
Wally Parks' story - Part 1
Back to pioneers index
Back to News page