Thomas McKernan has been President and Chief Executive Officer of Automobile Club of Southern California since 1991. He serves as President and Chief Executive Officer of four companies affiliated with The Automobile Club of Southern California, namely, Automobile Club of Southern California Life Insurance Company, AAA Texas, AAA New Mexico and AAA Hawaii.

Mr. McKernan has transformed the 100-year-old regional not-for-profit organization into a multi-state operation and has created a new public image of the Auto Club. Previously known primarily as an emergency road service provider, the Auto Club is now a major travel agency competitor and leader in the California insurance industry, and is emerging in other fields as well.

Darr Hawthorne had a chance to sit down with Mr. McKernan during the Winternationals to talk about his and the Auto Club’s involvement with the Wally Parks NHRA Museum.

: How did your involvement in the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum come about?

Thomas McKernan: Well, it starts many years ago. Wally Parks came to me. Wally Parks and the Auto Club go way back, to like the ‘50s when he was getting it started. And the Auto Club helped him with some anti-street racing stuff. That was the attitude at the time: Get the kids off the streets and all that, and the Auto Club helped some. In later years, the Auto Club had a dyno and did automotive testing, and Wally, through the NHRA, got to use it. And then there were some safety connections, because there’s a lot of safety that’s come out of racing. That’s just one piece of the puzzle.

Wally came to me and others when he had this idea to start this, because if you think about it, Don Garlits has a great museum, but other than that, there’s not a lot that actually chronicles drag racing. NASCAR’s got a lot of museums, there’s great institutions like the Petersen, which we support, on just automobiles and automotive technology and how it’s changed, but there really wasn’t something to chronicle American drag racing, and it started here.

It’s a real American sport. We think the connections to the past that show how things have evolved... and good things came out of it! We did learn more about not doing things, like street racing; we did learn more about safety -- unfortunately, sometimes through tragedy -- but safety came out of it that eventually would be applied, and technologically, to the cars we drive.

And there’s its past with California, and California’s synonymous with the automobile, and one part of our organization is the Automobile Club of Southern California, the largest one in the country, and it has a big tie to southern California in the early days. It did signposting, it wrote the first vehicle code, and all this history. So we thought the history was important. We think there are people that appreciate the fact that we honor where we’ve come from, and we’ve got a lot of members in southern California. We’ve got a lot of young people that we think ought to learn some of that, and there’s a lot of interest.