The Parker 400 is a race almost as old as off-road racing itself, having its roots back to the '71 Dam 500. Created by the Parker City Chamber of Commerce and NORRA (North American Off-Road Racing Association), the granddaddy promoter of the Baja 1000 and Baja 500, it had a full 100 entries for the first race.
Those promoters might be surprised that their little race would still be viable today, and is still a huge success despite the many challenges it has had over the years. Since that first race with NORRA, the event has gone through all the major race promoters in its 46-year history.
SCORE ran the event from 1974 until 1984, when the High Desert Racing Association joined with SCORE to promote the event; Whiplash Motorsports took over for four years, and Best in the Desert has run it ever since.
SCORE, with its new president Sal Fish on board, had 227 entries in 1974 and the course consisted of one lap in California and two laps in Arizona. That format ran for a number of years until 1989, when the Desert tortoise was placed on the endangered species list, so their breeding grounds and every other part of the course in California was eliminated from racing.
Entries grew slowly but steadily, and, in 1977, entries were over 400. Crowds attending were estimated at around 70,000, spread out all over in the Arizona and California deserts. Spectators could roam at will as long as they weren't on the course during the race.
That was soon to change. Because of the high numbers of spectators and the high number of misbehaving knuckleheads mixed in with them, the BLM took action and started to limit where race fans could go.
But 1978 saw the biggest turmoil and threat to the existence of the race. A week before Parker, Sal Fish announced at the SCORE Banquet in Anaheim that the Parker 400 was to be canceled, and a new event was to be held in Mexicali, Baja California. (Sal told this writer that he always had a backup plan in his pocket in case of emergencies like this)
So in one week, the entire operation was moved to Baja, and that was quite a shock to the Parker community and its economy. Kentucky Fried Chicken, for example, lost thousands because of chicken it had ordered in anticipation of big sales the week of the race. The race had been a valuable source of income for the area, amounting to $1.6 million by some estimates. Many of the local businessmen were crushed, financially.
Sal blamed the insurance companies for not wanted to insure the race for spectators and racers alike. Some rumors had the BLM and the local Native American tribe as the culprits. Whatever it was, it got straightened out for the '79 event.
In 1985, everyone had a big surprise when it snowed on the California side. The weather might have been a factor in the low finishing rate of only 153 out of 368 entrants.
In 1994, motorcycles and ATVs were dropped from the competition due to “safety concerns.” Those motorcycle safety concerns are still an issue with SCORE.
The '97 event was the last race run by SCORE. The BLM decided they wanted a bigger piece of the race pie, and raised the fees and demands on SCORE. Fish decided enough was enough, and dropped Parker from the SCORE schedule. The town of Parker was shocked, but they recovered quickly and hired Jay and Jackie McKinley of Phoenix-based Whiplash Motorsports to run the Parker event.
Whiplash continued in this role for four seasons until Best in the Desert took over for the 2003 event and the Native American-owned Bluewater Marina provided the major sponsorship. BITD boss Casey Folks also negotiated the reopening of the popular Shea Road area that had been closed off for six years to spectators. Local drivers Jim Beaver and Manny Esquerra were instrumental in the event’s successful revival.
Folks continued his innovations by improving the “gauntlet” course in the middle of the pit area (named the Parker Python), so all the pit crews and spectators could see flying car action and the entire Python from where they sat.
Another innovation Folks had was the blading of the course and making it smooth before the race. But that improvement was deceiving because after the first lap the entire field had traveled over the course, the ruts and silt were as bad as ever, if not worse. Finishing numbers had not improved — just the opposite occurred. For example, in 2009, only 77 racers finished out of the 265 that started. “We always seem to have a high attrition rate,” Folks wryly said.