Editor’s Note: In honor of Benny Parsons, who died Tuesday at the age of 65, Matt McLaughlin chooses to remember the life Parsons lived on the track… including one incredible championship no one will ever forget.
The date was October 21st, 1973, and the Winston Cup teams were in Rockingham, N.C. for the final event of the season, the American 500. Going into the race Benny Parsons had what most people thought was a comfortable lead in the Winston Cup title chase, but because of a bizarre points system, one of several fumbled attempts by NASCAR in the ’70s, no one was quite sure what he needed to do to take the title. There was just one thing everyone did know: Parsons needed to keep his Chevy off the wall. But there on the unlucky 13th lap sat Parsons in a thoroughly-mangled racecar, his hopes for a championship seemingly strewn along the length of the first and second corners, right along with major pieces of his car.
A little background on the events leading up to that day may help explain things. There were only 28 events on the 1973 schedule, the second year of a downsized schedule that had once averaged about 48 races a year. Winston, which had become the title sponsor of NASCAR’s senior division in 1971, had insisted in 1972 any race of less than 250 miles be dropped from the schedule. It had been those rough-and-tumble short-track races that had once given the smaller teams a chance to compete with the big dogs of the day: Richard Petty, Bobby Allison and David Pearson, so many teams were no longer attending every event because of the new rules. In fact, only six teams had gone to every race in 1972. In an effort to lure more teams into running the full circuit, rather than “cherry picking” (running only the events with large purses) a new points system was devised where the winner received 100 points and every team got a half point for every lap they completed. Thus, a team hoping to take the title had to go to every race and run every lap possible. A driver finishing 12th, but on the lead lap, received just as many points as the driver who finished second if they were on the same lap. The system was not quite as bizarre as it seems, because in those days it was not unusual for the winner to be on a lap by himself, while a car that finished fifth would be 10 or 20 laps down.
Benny Parsons was one of those running the full schedule in ’73, driving a pumpkin orange with Petty blue wheels ’73 Chevelle. (Let’s keep in mind the ’70s were an aesthetic disaster). The car was owned by LG DeWitt and ran without a primary sponsor at most races, although UNOCAL 76 was on the car’s quarterpanels occasionally, as was Dewitt Trucking or any other sponsor interested in a one-race deal. The team was lightly funded and lightly regarded, though Parsons and Dewitt had won a 100-mile event at the tiny South Boston track back in ’71. Parsons was a well-liked driver with an infectious sense of humor, but was considered a journeyman who had come up through the ARCA ranks to produce limited Cup success to date. An underdog organization if you ever saw one, the No. 72 team’s ability to continue operating simply depended on winning enough money at each event without tearing up the car to get to the next race.
Going into 1973, the odds-on favorite to take the title was Petty in his heavily-funded STP Dodge. Petty had won the title in 1971 and 1972, scoring 21 victories in the 1971 season alone. His primary competition was Allison in a Coca-Cola sponsored Chevrolet, the runner up for the ’72 title. Cale Yarborough was also returning to NASCAR after a brief stint in the IndyCar ranks, driving for the Junior Johnson/Ron Howard team, and so he was also considered a threat. Though they would only compete in 18 events, the combination of Pearson and the Woods Brothers Mercury would also be a tough contender at the big tracks; as for the rest of the drivers, they would have to settle for the crumbs.
1973 was a turbulent season, and almost from the outset the big teams were complaining that the points system rewarded consistency rather than running hard. Meanwhile, the smaller teams were complaining only the big dogs got appearance money and that the purses were ridiculously small. Everyone was pointing fingers at everyone else and complaining they were cheating. Midway through the season, NASCAR made a highly controversial rules change trying to achieve “parity” (yes, that dreaded word has been around all these years). The big 426 Hemis and Ford Boss 429 engines were saddled with smaller restrictor plates, all in an effort to try and give the production-based Chevy 427 Rat a chance with its conventional cylinder heads. The Ford-based teams were particularly vocal because to that point (and indeed throughout the entire season) only Pearson and his Wood Brothers’ Mercury had won races for the Blue Oval folks.
Throughout it all, Parsons was quietly out there running, careful to avoid wrecks or hurting an engine while the big name drivers were blowing up or wrecking fighting over the lead. The season was not without its incidents for Parsons, though. He lost an engine at Daytona and wound up 30th, a poor way to start things. The team only had a couple of the new Chevelles and often had to run year-old Monte Carlos, which were about as aerodynamic as a brick outhouse, and in one case actually trotted out a ’71 Mercury because that was all they had left that kept running.
Benny did have his one shining day in the sun July 8th at Bristol. The day was so brutally hot, only six drivers made the entire race without needing a relief driver. Even Benny was forced to put John Utsman in the car after Parsons built up a comfortable lead. How comfortable? He was credited with finishing seven laps ahead of second-place driver LD Ottinger, as most of the big name drivers were felled by mechanical problems or wrecks that blistering day in Tennessee. For the win Parsons, was awarded the princely sum of $6,800, boosting his underdog team’s growing chances for an unlikely points title. Quietly, Parsons continued marching towards his championship, finishing in the top five 15 times and in the top 10 21 times in 27 starts.
The pundits were stunned when Parsons arrived at the track in Rockingham for the last race of the year with a 194.3 point lead. Not only was Parsons and the DeWitt team in the lead, two other lightly-regarded drivers, James Hylton in a family team Mercury and Cecil Gordon in the No. 24 Monte Carlo (just a coincidence; Cecil is no relation to the current Gordon who drives the No. 24) were also in the top six in the points, right along with Petty, Buddy Baker and Yarborough.
Benny knew what he needed to do to take the title; finish the race and run as many laps as possible without taking any risks. He was honest about the fact he wasn’t gunning for a win that day, telling reporters, “My very livelihood is at stake. Richard or Cale’s isn’t. The championship would assure us of continuing racing. Everyone needs a sponsor, and winning would give us a selling point for additional backing next year. Nothing less than winning the championship affords us that opportunity.”
Well, as the saying goes, “The best laid plans of mice and men…” On that fateful 13th lap, Johnny Barnes got sideways in the first corner. Parsons tried to duck low to avoid him, but quickly ran out of room; the resultant impact sounded like a bomb going off. When the smoke cleared, there sat Benny’s Chevy with its right side torn away, its roll-cage can-openered open, the right-front tire gone, and the entire rear axle assembly laying separate from the car. The car looked hopeless, and a dejected Parsons told the press, “There just went $50,000 down the drain.” It may seem hard to believe to anyone of you who was still getting ready to duke it out in the Fallopian Tube 500 back in the ’70s, but $50,000 was the money the points champion took home in those days.
While Benny was showing his concern, his crew chief Travis Carter (current owner of the No. 23 team) wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. The wreck was towed back to the garage area, and something remarkable happened. Members of other independent teams came hurrying over to give the DeWitt crew a hand trying to piece back together the shattered Chevy. Another Chevelle that had failed to qualify was pressed into service as a parts car, and the right-side portion of the roll-cage was cut off and welded into place on Parsons’s No. 72. The damaged sheetmetal was removed with a torch, and the suspension was completely rebuilt. The miracle that eventually occurred that day is right up there with the ending of the Charlie Brown Christmas special, where the Peanuts gang brings the ugly little tree back to life, only that Christmas tree looked great. What was left of Parsons’s car was so ugly you’d have had to tie a steak to the roll-cage to get a dog to relieve itself on one of the tires. There was no right-front fender, door panel or quarterpanel. The windshield, decklid and hood were held on with duct tape. The color of the roll-cage section grafted in didn’t match, and the welds looked like they were squeezed out of a toothpaste tube. But it ran.
On the 149th lap, Parsons returned to the track in his beat up racecar to the wild cheers from the fans in the stands. Parsons had one bit of good luck even while his car was being jury-rigged back together, as Petty retired on the 133rd lap with mechanical problems. Parsons drove slowly around the track, collecting lap points while in his pits Carter scribbled frantically away, trying to determine how many laps Benny had to complete to take the championship. On the 394th lap Benny parked the car, which was vibrating too badly to continue by that point. Still, it was enough. That day David slew Goliath, and Benny Parsons and the under-funded DeWitt team won the 1973 Winston Cup championship with a little help from their friends.
AFTERMATH. 1973 was the only Winston Cup championship that Benny Parsons won, though he went on to win 19 more races before hanging up his crash helmet at the end of 1988 and signing on as a commentator for ESPN. In his career, which spanned three decades he won about $4.4 million, half the earnings Jimmie Johnson took home last year. Parsons’s championship was also the first for a Chevrolet driver since 1961; Chevy would succeed again later on in the ’70s when Yarborough won three straight championships for Junior Johnson. The other big story of 1973 was Pearson, who won 11 of 18 races he entered, 10 of them on superspeedways, to finish 13th in points despite missing 10 events. After the ’73 season, Petty returned to form, winning the championship the following two years. As for the underdog team Parsons drove to the title, DeWitt’s organization continued running until 1980; in 1978, in fact, he prepared a car for one race for an up-and-coming rookie by the name of Bill Elliott.