Benny Parsons, whose gentle nature made him a favorite among NASCAR fans as a broadcaster and whose competitive fire drove him from his father’s taxi company in Detroit to the championship in stock-car racing’s top division, died early Tuesday at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte.
Parsons was diagnosed with lung cancer on July 13, one day after his 65th birthday. He missed a handful of races while having aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments shortly thereafter, but pressed on and was part of the NBC/TNT team that called the season’s final races.
“The Wednesday before the Bank of America 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway, I had another scan,” Parsons wrote in a story for the NBC Sports web site, referring to the October race at the Charlotte track. “My doctor couldn't believe what he saw. ‘Remarkable!’ he told me. ‘Ninety-nine percent of the cancer is gone!’”
Just after the season, however, Parsons suffered trouble breathing and doctors put him on oxygen. Subsequent examinations found that his left lung had been badly damaged by the aggressive treatments. Then, just after Christmas, Parsons was hospitalized at Carolinas Medical Center and was later moved to intensive care as his condition deteriorated.
“The most unbelievable thing about this is that so many people are praying for me and thinking about me," Parsons said in an interview after his diagnosis last summer. “It has been humbling.
“I've always made the mistake that when friends get sick, I know everyone is calling them so I figure I won't call. That's wrong. I can't tell you how gratifying it has been to hear from friends and colleagues. You always wonder if you made a difference, if you were saying or doing something that meant something. All of this means to me that people have been listening.”
Parsons retired as a driver following the 1988 season. He won 21 races and 20 poles in 526 races in a career highlighted by his 1973 championship and victories in the 1975 Daytona 500 and the 1980 Coca-Cola 600.
He then went on to a second successful racing career as a television analyst, beginning full-time with ESPN in 1989 and continuing through the 2006 season.
“I love the people involved in racing, and the fact that I can still continue to be a part of it is fantastic,” Parsons said of the broadcasting portion of his career, during which he earned the nickname “The Professor” for the easy, affable tone with which he talked about the sport he loved.
“Benny is such a great role model,” Darrell Waltrip, another former champion who has turned to broadcasting, once said. “He's such a sweet and patient man. I don't think I've ever seen Benny Parsons mad about anything.”
He was born on July 12, 1941, in Wilkes County and raised by his great-grandmother on Rendezvous Ridge near the community called Parsonsville. In the past few years Parsons and his wife, Terri, were building a home near there and Parsons had begun a winery bearing the Rendezvous Ridge name.
When Benny was 5, his parents, Harold and Hazel, moved with Benny’s younger brother, Phill, to Detroit to seek a better way of life for their family. But Benny’s great-grandmother, Julia B. Parsons, was in her 70s and very much attached to the young boy, so Benny stayed behind in a house with no electricity or hot water. The only water in the house was cold water run to it by a system of gravity devised by Silas Parsons, “Mama Julia’s” husband.
His childhood heroes included NASCAR legends Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly, stars of the 1950s. But it wasn’t until after he moved to Michigan 1960 to be with the rest of his family that Parsons took the first steps down his career path. He worked for his father and on occasion drove a taxi in Detroit. Because he later listed “taxi driver” as an occupation on race entry forms, that would eventually become part of his identity as a NASCAR star – the racing cab driver.
“I met two guys my dad knew who had a race car and I started going to the track, into the pits,” Parsons told Circle Track magazine in an interview. “The only time I’d been to a race track was as a spectator.
“Three years later, in 1963, one of these guys stopped by Dad’s station and asked me if I’d like to drive a race car. I said I thought so. He said he had a car he’d give to me, a Ford. We went to his garage, and the first thought I had when I saw that car was that he had got cheated. It was torn all to pieces. We fixed it, though, and I ran my first race, a figure-eight feature on a quarter-mile dirt track, and spun out.”
But just two years later, he was rookie of the year in the Automobile Racing Club of America series. He won ARCA championships in 1968 and 1969.
Parsons finished fifth in a Daytona 500 qualifying race in 1969 and then seventh in the Cup series’ biggest race. Later that year, he finished third at College Station, Texas, setting the stage for a rookie season on NASCAR’s top circuit in 1970 where Parsons hooked up with car owner L.G. DeWitt.
He won his first pole at Atlanta in the final race of 1970 and got his first victory at South Boston, Va., the following year.
In 1973, Parsons won only one race in a season during which David Pearson won 11 times. But Pearson only ran in 18 of the season’s 28 races in the Wood Brothers’ car, so Parsons went into the final race at Rockingham leading Richard Petty by 194.35 points in a system where laps completed counted for varying points based on the size of the track.
“I was in the perfect spot, about fifth or sixth, and didn't have much traffic,” Parsons said. “I was basically in a straightaway by myself. I thought, ‘Wouldn't it be perfect to run like this all day?’”
But on Lap 13, a car driven by Johnny Barnes spun and wound up dead ahead of him on the track. Parsons ran into Barnes and was trying to get his car going again without much luck when he glanced to his right.
“I could not believe what I saw,” Parsons said. “There was no right side, none at all.”
Parsons went to the garage and thought his title chances were over. But people from other teams came over and offered to help, loaning the team parts and pieces to get Parsons’ car back on the track. He returned in time to complete 308 laps and hold on to win the title by 67.15 points over Cale Yarborough.
Published in Charlotte Observer on Jan. 16, 2007.