The NASCAR community suffered a second heartbreaking loss with the death of 65-year-old former Cup champion and award-winning broadcaster Benny Parsons after a courageous battle with lung cancer. Parsons’s death early Tuesday comes just a little over a week of the news that veteran NASCAR driver and former Craftsman Truck Series champion Bobby Hamilton Sr. had succumbed to head and neck cancer.
Both Parsons and Hamilton were able to, through hard work and determination, elevate themselves from their meager beginnings to a life of wealth and respect through stock car racing. Parsons, the 1973 Winston Cup champion and consistent top-five points performer throughout his career, was better known to the public-at-large for his work as a racing commentator for ESPN, NBC and TNT. Parsons, a genuinely nice guy, easily conveyed that through his commentary and endeared himself to race fans in a broadcasting career that began on a full-time basis for ESPN in 1989.
The life of Benny Parsons is the very definition of the term “self-made man.” There were no advantages given to him in life. Parsons lived in a small log home with his elderly great-grandmother in the crossroads community known as Parsonsville, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. While living there during his teenage years, he assisted her and continued his high school education after his parents migrated to Detroit, Mich. in search of a more prosperous life.
Eventually, Benny, too, made his way to Detroit and drove a taxi to make ends meet. From those beginnings, the man affectionately nicknamed “The Professor” and widely known simply as “BP,” began a racing career on the local racetracks, eventually claiming consecutive ARCA championships in 1968 and 1969.
In 1970, the first full season that Parsons competed in NASCAR’s top division, he earned an eighth-place end-of-the-season position in points, having participated in 45 of the scheduled 48 points-earning races. The following year resulted in an 11th-place points finish, but that would be the only blip on the radar screen that decade; from 1972-1980, there was never a season that BP failed to finish the season inside the top five in driver points.
Persistence and consistency was the trademark of Benny’s racing career. He posted top-10 finishes 283 times, more than any full-time driver currently running in the Nextel Cup Series other than Jeff Gordon. What’s more impressive is Parsons accomplished that number in just 526 races, meaning he finished in the top 10 in 54% of races he started.
Fellow competitors’ respect and admiration for BP might best be illustrated by the final race of his championship-winning season. With Parsons, Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough locked in a close battle for the 1973 crown going into the last race of the season at the North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham, BP wrecked early in the race and suffered considerable damage to his racecar.
However, with a large contingency of fans that considered Parsons the “hometown favorite” rooting his team on, crews from a number of different competitors, in an unprecedented effort, joined forces and worked together to repair the damaged car. Parsons went on to finish 25th in the race, outpointing Yarborough by 67 points to take home the title.
Parsons’s on-track performance has earned him not only that NASCAR championship, but 21 career wins, 199 top fives and the 283 top 10s mentioned earlier. He notched a Daytona 500 win in 1975 and was the first NASCAR driver to qualify a stock car in excess of 200 mph. Those accomplishments have put him in the Motor Sports Hall of Fame and earned him a place as one of the Top 50 NASCAR drivers of all time; he’s also a mortal lock to be inducted when the NASCAR Hall of Fame opens its doors in Charlotte.
On the track, Parsons was a tough competitor, but he was always mindful of taking care of his equipment, a true “thinking” driver who understood the need to first finish a race to have a chance of winning. Longtime followers of the sport often credit Parsons’s approach to influencing the driving styles of drivers that followed him, such as Harry Gant, Terry Labonte and Mark Martin.
Former NASCAR Cup champion, competitor and friend of Parsons, Darrell Waltrip has summed up the universal opinion of those that knew him rather succinctly. “Benny Parsons was the kindest, sweetest, most considerate person I have ever known,” said Waltrip. “He was almost too nice to be a racecar driver, and I say that as a compliment. In my 30-odd years of racing Benny Parsons, I never knew of anyone being mad at Benny.”
“Benny Parsons was a great champion, a great ambassador for our sport, but more than that, he was a great person. He exemplified that good guys can be winners, too.”
Of course, for more recent fans Parsons was known not for his driving but as a race-day broadcast analyst. Following his retirement from racing in 1988, he was employed full-time by ESPN, where his work on the network’s race coverage immediately earned him accolades and resulted in a ACE award as the best sports analyst on cable television for 1989. Throughout his broadcasting career, Parsons received recognition and awards for excellence in broadcasting. Benny’s success as a broadcaster has been based on his likability, along with an easily recognizable extensive knowledge of the sport.
Waltrip was correct in his assessment of Parsons as a “great ambassador,” Although Benny was a driver that cut his teeth in stock car racing in the late ’60s, his success through the ’70s and ’80s, along with his love and knowledge of the sport, fit nicely with the burgeoning popularity of NASCAR racing. With Parsons, the story was always the sport, the race, and the competitors. Never was the story about Benny Parsons.
The death of Parsons is heartbreaking news for those of us who had the pleasure of observing him in both these great careers. Parsons always conducted himself on and off the track as a solid family man, gentleman and champion, part of a group of drivers that helped to lay the groundwork for the immensely successful series that NASCAR has become.
Parsons exemplified the very best of what the sport has to offer its fans, serving as a role model for modern-day drivers to follow in his footsteps. It is my hope that the legacy BP leaves to this newest generation of NASCAR competitors is that to be a true winner they will not only be judged by their racing statistics, but by their off-track actions, as well. It takes a complete person to make a true winner, and Benny Parsons fit that mold.
It is truly a sad day for auto racing. Rest in peace, Benny.
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