Born: July 12th, 1941
Hometown: Wilkes County, N.C.
Top Fives: 199
Top 10s: 283
Championships: 1 (1973)
This weekend’s 3M Performance 400 at Michigan International Speedway brings back fond memories of a special life lost. While the track that sits off the road from US-12 might be considered home for Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, it was also considered the “home” of 1973 Winston Cup champion Benny Parsons. One of the most beloved figures in NASCAR history, the compassionate driver-turned-TV analyst passed away this past January at 65 after succumbing to complications from lung cancer.
Benny Parsons was born in Ellerbe, N.C., on July 12th, 1941 – a small town just north of Rockingham. After growing up in the South throughout his childhood, Parsons actually made his first career choice around a profession that had nothing to do with racing – but driving an automobile nonetheless. Making a move up north to Detroit in 1960, Parsons relocated to where his father ran a taxi cab garage. That’s where the youngster spent the remainder of his young adult years… learning how to drive not through the local dirt track, but by dropping passenger after passenger off at their destination as a cab driver.
Content driving around city streets – not dirt ovals – it initially appeared the paths of Parsons and racing would never cross. But then, a couple of his dad’s friends who campaigned a short-track car asked him to come check out a race one day – and that was all she wrote. Smitten by the racing bug, Parsons was hooked. He spent the first few years mulling around the pits before his “big break” came in 1963 – an offer to drive none other than his dad’s friend’s car.
That first ride wasn’t pretty – it was a mangled heap of what once resembled a Ford product that would need an extensive restoration before it was fit for anything other than a Campbell’s Soup can. Parsons’s race that day didn’t exactly turn out to be the most glamorous of events, either: it was a figure-eight race on a dirt track. Still, Parsons survived the afternoon, and after getting his feet wet behind the wheel of a racecar, nothing would stop him from rising up through the ranks.
Parsons would make his first Cup start in 1964 in another Ford product, this time driving for one of the most legendary names in Ford racing history, Holman-Moody. It was an inauspicious debut, his overheating rig placing 21st at the half-mile oval in Weaverville, N.C., right behind another Holman-Moody entry of a little someone named Cale Yarborough. From there, Parsons would go on to compete in the ARCA Series, winning titles in 1968 and 1969 to give him another shot at the big time later that season. He made all of four starts in Cup that year, finishing in the top 10 on three occasions and setting the stage for what would be a long and fruitful Cup career.
In 1970, Benny would finally get to run the entire season. The break he needed came after a strong Daytona 500, one in which he placed 14th in his own car after finishing seventh in his Twin 125-mile qualifier. That caught the eye of car owner LG DeWitt, and the two went on to compete in 43 of the remaining 44 events of that season together. In the end, Parsons piled up a total of 45 starts that year, and although he did not score a win, he would notch 12 top fives, 23 top 10s and a pole in the final race of the season in Atlanta, eventually finishing runner-up to Bobby Allison. In 1971, he would make his first of 21 career trips to Victory Lane in South Boston, Va., again driving DeWitt’s No. 72 Ford Torino while establishing himself as a star to watch on NASCAR’s highest level. While 1972 was not as strong – most of the factory support evaporated from the Cup level that year, leaving the team a bit underfunded – Parsons still managed a fifth-place finish in the standings on the strength of 19 top-10 finishes. Clearly, the team was still in position to challenge the top teams in the sport – and that’s exactly what they did in 1973, a year most anyone from that era will never forget.
Parsons had a rough start to the season – with a best finish of 10th in his first four starts – but things would soon turn around in a hurry. Starting with a fifth-place finish at Bristol that spring, Parsons would eventually win at the track the second time around – taking home the trophy for the Volunteer 500 that July. That capped a remarkable span of 14 races where Parsons’s worst finish was a ninth at Michigan – easily the best performances of his career to date. That consistency – combined with a wacky new points system – put Parsons in a position to challenge the King, Richard Petty, for that year’s Winston Cup championship. He entered the final race of the year at Rockingham with a 194.35-point lead over Petty, needing only to finish in a relatively decent spot to take the title. Indeed, Parsons was cruising comfortably with the title in hand, just needing to finish the race to cash in on stock car history – but that’s when all hell broke loose. Parsons’s car was involved in a serious on-track incident that left the No. 72 car all tore up – in fact, the right side of the vehicle was all but torn off. Bruised and battered, Parsons’s Chevrolet now sported the roll bar-delete option as it headed to the garage.
The crew examined the car – and was crestfallen, as there was no way they’d be able to get the car back into the race. You have to understand, today’s race teams are prepared for any contingency. Their trailers are stacked with everything to rebuild a car – spare noses, body panels, saws, welders, metal fabrication tools, you name it. Back then, the one thing they did not have – and the one thing they desperately needed – was a spare roll-cage. It appeared a championship the underdogs had fought so hard to win would be forever lost – Petty lost a camshaft, but Yarborough, Parsons’s other challenger for that year’s title, continued to circle the track in front of the pack.
But fate would smile kindly on Benny and Company that day, as one of the men who helped him begin his career was there to help. Ralph Moody, who had split from John Holman, cut out the roll bars from one of his cars to install in Parsons’s. While the team and many other helping hands glued his car back together, another group swarmed underneath to rebuild the suspension – front and rear. When the day was done, Parsons had won the title by 68 points and some change over Yarborough, the same driver he had finished behind in his NASCAR debut almost 10 years earlier.
That turned out to be one of several highlights of Parsons’s nine-year association with DeWitt – in the No. 72 car, Parsons not only won his sole championship but the crown jewel of NASCAR events, the Daytona 500, in 1975. They say it’s better to be lucky than fast, and such was the case for Parsons that day – Petty’s Dodge Charger was untouchable, but a water leak forced him to repeatedly make pit stops to fill up the big Mopar with coolant. That left Petty laps down and out of contention for the win, a victory that seemed to fall right in the hands of David Pearson instead. Petty, however, thought he’d give his rival some competition, and signaled Benny to hook up to his bumper to draft. Towing Parsons up to Pearson with only a couple of laps to go, the No. 43 car was integral in putting Parsons in the perfect position to win – and then, fate would frown on Pearson that day. With just two laps left, his car went spinning after contact with a lapped car to bring out the caution. With Pearson unable to get the car refired, that pushed Parsons from second up to the lead, and he was able to hold on under caution to take the win. Parsons’s victory is up there with Derrike Cope‘s in 1990 as to who has won The Great American Race under the most unlikely of circumstances – in fact, Parsons’s four laps out front on the day still stands as a record for fewest laps led by a Daytona 500 winner.
After departing the No. 72 team in 1979 to seek other opportunities, Parsons’s career remained successful for the next few years with other teams. Driving for MC Anderson in both 1979 and 1980, he won five times – finishing top five in points both of those years. In 1981, he drove for Bud Moore, winning three more times en route to finishing 10th in the standings – it would turn out to be the last time Parsons would finish the year ranked that high in the season-end points totals. A journeyman, part-time driver for much of the remainder of his career, Parsons’s last win would come in 1984 driving the No. 55 Copenhagen Chevrolet.
However, Parsons’s final few years were not without some memorable moments. In 1987, he was chosen by Rick Hendrick to sub for an ailing Tim Richmond, who was busy battling what turned out to be AIDS. A memorable moment that year came at Darlington – Parsons was laps down after an accident caused damage to his car that needed to be repaired. He radioed the crew to tell them he needed to pit. Crew chief Harry Hyde waved him off, telling him to make another lap. The next lap, same story. Hyde told Benny to hang on to it… until the crew finished their ice cream cones. It’s hard to imagine Chad Knaus delaying Jimmie Johnson‘s pit stop today because the No. 48 team was crushing push-pops. The scene would be immortalized in the 1990 theatrical thespian masterpiece Days of Thunder, as would another incident at Martinsville that season – when Hyde instructed Parsons under caution to hit the pace car, as it was the only thing he hadn’t run into that day. Still, Parsons experienced moderate success with Hendrick – collecting six top fives and nine top 10s in 29 starts, it was one of his most successful seasons of the 1980s.
Benny’s final season was with Ford stalwart Junie Donlavey in 1988. From there, Benny would move into broadcasting with ESPN and NBC, a role he would fill for over 18 years full-time on the television airwaves. Over the years, our jovial chubby buddy would relate to the fans the drivers’ perspective, stories from his career, and his love of food in the popular “Buffet Benny” spots, where Parsons would profile a local restaurant nearby whatever track the series would be visiting. Sometimes, he’d even just tailgate with the fans. Together with Bob Jenkins and Ned Jarrett, Parsons was a third of what is possibly the finest on-air commentary this side of Barney Hall and Joe Moore of MRN – helping NASCAR push its way to prominence throughout the growth of the 1990s.
Benny Parsons passed away in a Charlotte, N.C. hospital on January 16th, 2007. During his battle with the cancer, he refused to give up, resting just long enough during the summer months to prepare himself to join his colleagues in the booth to cover the 2006 Chase for the Championship. One of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers and a member of the the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, Parsons ended his life just as he did that final race in 1973 – by fighting to the bitter end. As a result, he left this world a champion, hero and a friend to thousands of race fans around the world – and he won’t be soon forgotten.