Gordon Pirkle’s famous siren, sounded for years every time Dawsonville residents like Bill and Chase Elliott scored victories in automobile races across America, wailed long and loud Wednesday afternoon for another Dawsonville native who had just received one of racing’s greatest honors.
The late Raymond Parks was voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte.
“I just about burned that thing up,” said Pirkle of his siren known across America as one of the more unique ways of celebrating racing triumphs.
Wednesday’s news was a long time coming for Pirkle and other friends of Parks, who died in 2000 at the age of 96.
Parks, who was born in Dawson County in 1914 and got his start in business selling moonshine, was the leading car owner in the early days of stock car racing. He hired one the best mechanics of his time, Red Vogt, and employed that era’s top drivers, a roster that included Lloyd Seay, Roy Hall, Red Byron, Bob Flock, Fonty Flock, Curtis Turner and Bill France Sr. among others.
His cars were both fast and immaculately prepared. Parks himself presented a classy image as well, always dressed in a wood suit, tie and fedora hat. There are photos of Parks from the inaugural Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, which show him changing tires on one of his cars, still wearing his white shirt and tie.
Parks, with Hall and Seay driving, won races at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway and at tracks across America from 1938 to 1941.
Seay was the national car champion in 1938, with Hall taking the title 1939, using a set of rules agreed upon by the various groups and clubs of the sport at that time.
When World War II began, racing was halted for the duration of the war. Parks served in the U.S. Army and was in one of the toughest battles of the war, the Battle of the Bulge. After repelling the Germans in that cold, December battle, he and his fellow soldiers fought their way across Germany until the end of the war.
Upon returning home, Parks resumed racing, and winning. He usually fielded three cars per race and in a rare instance, drove the third entry himself.
It happened in 1947 at the legendary Langhorne Speedway in Pennsylvania.
Parks, who had honed his driving skills hauling moonshine in his early days, started the car in case his drivers Byron or Bob Flock, had trouble during the race.
Parks often recalled being unable to sleep the night before, but his worries were unfounded. He had his car in third place, behind Byron and Flock, when Byron experienced engine trouble. Parks dropped out of the race turned his car over to Byron. Despite mid-race mechanical troubles with both cars, Flock and Byron still finished the race in first and second place.
With Red Byron doing the driving, Parks won the inaugural NASCAR Modified Championship in 1948 and followed that the next year by winning the first championship of the Strictly Stock division, which is now known as Sprint Cup.
Parks raced on into the mid-1950s but eventually scaled back his racing ventures to focus on his businesses.
“I had to start making a living,” he often said in explaining why he left racing.
Although Parks continued to follow the sport, and attend the Daytona 500 each year, he soon faded from the memory of many racing folk as NASCAR continued to grow.
Like many members of the Greatest Generation, he wasn’t one to brag on himself.
“Raymond was such a first-class person,” Pirkle said. “People just didn’t know what all he had done, and he never was one to toot his own horn.”
Eventually others began to spread the word about him, and the honors began to flow his way.
Modern-era drivers also began to take note, and many of them, including Bill Elliott, Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, became friends with him. Parks was sitting in Earnhardt’s box at Daytona in 2001 when Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
In 1995, Parks was inducted into the Stock Car Hall of Fame in Darlington.
When the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame opened, he was in the inaugural class of 2002. In 2009, he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, and when the NASCAR Hall of Fame opened eight years ago, Parks’ name was among the original nominees.
Now, he’s achieved his highest honor.
“I’ve always said I was shocked that he wasn’t in the first class, with Bill France Sr.,” Gordon Pirkle said. “But I’m so glad he finally made it.”