He had been at his father’s side for as long as anyone could remember and, for that reason alone, Ralph Parkinson Jr. was destined to be known only as Junior.
To this day, if a group of racing veterans assembles to tell tales of the old IMCA or BCRA sprint car trail, or even the wild and woolly supermodified scene that raged throughout the Plains and the great Southwest, at some point someone is going to mention the racing Parkinsons.
In so many ways, Ralph Parkinson Jr. was a true outlaw, and in a remarkable career he rubbed shoulders and wheels with some of the recognized greats of short track open-wheel racing. Along the way he also had golden days of his own, and his body of work has already landed him in several Halls of Fame.
The story of this racing family reaches back to Junior’s grandfather, Frank Parkinson. Frank, as befitted a good Texan, worked in an oil refinery but also developed a taste for auto racing. It was a habit he passed on to his son. Any thoughts Ralph Parkinson Sr. harbored about getting deeply involved in the speed game were interrupted by a call from Uncle Sam.
Ralph would enlist in the Navy and would serve in the Quartermaster Corps in Hawaii.
When the war ended, he headed right back to Wichita Falls and was raring for action. He wasn’t the only young man in his neighborhood destined to go fast. Ralph grew up just blocks from future Indianapolis 500 legend Lloyd Ruby, and the duo got their feet wet racing motorcycles. However, both men would gravitate, like so many of their era, to the mighty midgets.
When the time came for Ralph to make the jump, his father fell right in line. They secured a car powered by a trusty Ford V8-60 and signed in at the Wichita Falls Speedrome sometime in 1946. Legend has it he won his second time out.
If you had any talent at all and had access to a midget, there were two things for certain. First, you stood a fair chance of putting a few coins in your pocket. Second, you could get in all the work you could possibly want. Now, settling back into civilian life Ralph would take a job with Coca Cola as a delivery truck driver, and it was here that fellow-employee Joyce Steadman caught his eye.
It was a quick courtship, and not long after she had said I do she learned her husband had a bit of wanderlust. Racing wasn’t just a passing fancy for Ralph, and he could soon be found racing seven days a week in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. In what became a standard routine, Joyce would pick up her husband at work, the pair would proceed to the race track, and the next day Ralph would head back to his truck. It would be a process they repeated over and over.
Their life would change on April 8, 1948, when Junior was born, but reports indicate that they bundled their new son up and hauled him into the stands well before he was a month old.
Eventually, Ralph Parkinson would race anything and nearly everywhere. He kept at it in the midgets for years and was nearly unstoppable at Oklahoma City. Racing with the IMCA in what they then deemed the “compact sprint” division, he won three straight dates at the fairgrounds over the course of the 1967 and 1968 seasons. Those results only offer a hint about his prowess in Oklahoma’s capital city.
He would eventually move into sprint cars and enjoy success there as well. He won his first-ever IMCA sprint car race, at Wausau, Wisconsin, in August 1968, besting future Hall of Famers Jerry Richert and Lee Kunzman.
Thirty years after he had taken his first spin in a midget, he signed in to compete in the final IMCA sprint car race of the 1976 season, at the Clay County Fairgrounds in Spencer, Iowa. There was a prize on the line. In order to win the title, he had to gain the measure of Missouri’s Payton “Sonny” Smyser.
By this time Junior Parkinson was a well-established racer, but on this day he was on hand to help his dad. The car that Ralph would use to nail down the IMCA championship was one that Junior had built in famed racer/constructor Lee Osborne’s Pennsylvania shop. After a poor qualifying effort, it looked as if Ralph was sunk. Junior turned his attention to the race track and noticed that the water truck had made pass after pass on the high side. Slipping onto the surface, screwdriver in hand, Junior thrust the tool in each corner and was convinced a path to the front was at hand.
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