NASCAR mourns the passing of a champion
Published 3:21 am Wednesday, January 17, 2007
By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
Benny Parsons made a career of beating the odds, rising up from a childhood of poverty in the North Carolina foothills to a job as a Detroit cabbie, and eventually, becoming a NASCAR champion.
When he was diagnosed with lung cancer, Parsons had every reason to believe he would beat that, too. But despite a battle that saw ‘‘BP’’ carrying an oxygen tank around the race track, Parsons couldn’t win this fight.
He died Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C., where he had been hospitalized since Dec. 26 because of complications from his treatment. He was 65.
The 1973 NASCAR champion, Parsons was a member of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers and a lovable fixture at the track. He won 21 races, including the 1975 Daytona 500, and 20 poles. He was the first Cup competitor to qualify for a race faster than 200 mph, going 200.176 mph at the 1982 Winston 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
He retired from racing in 1988 and entered broadcasting, where his folksy style and straight-shooting manner endeared him to fans and drivers. Sometimes referred to as ‘‘The Professor’’ because of his relaxed ability to deliver information, Parsons spent the past six years as an NBC and TNT commentator and continued to call races from the booth during his treatment.
Parsons was diagnosed with cancer in his left lung in July. Parsons, who quit smoking in 1978, underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments and was declared cancer-free in October. But the treatment cost Parsons the use of his left lung, and he was hospitalized last month when doctors found a blood clot in his right lung. He was placed in an induced-coma.
Known throughout NASCAR as ‘‘BP,’’ Parsons hosted a weekly radio program and kept fans updated on his condition in a blog on his Web site.
That feisty spirit was one of Parsons’ trademarks, carrying him from a poor childhood in Wilkes County, N.C., to a job driving taxis and then to the top of NASCAR. Long after his retirement, he was a popular figure with the fans and driving community.
Parsons was always on the lookout for new talent, and proved to have a keen eye when he discovered Greg Biffle and urged car owner Jack Roush to hire him sight unseen. Biffle went on to win championships in NASCAR’s Truck and Busch Series and is now a top Nextel Cup driver.
Parsons’ death comes eight days after former Truck Series champion Bobby Hamilton lost his battle with cancer.
Born July 12, 1941 at a rural home that lacked running water and electricity, Parsons was raised by his great-grandmother near the community called Parsonsville. He eventually moved to Detroit, where he worked at a gas station and a cab company owned by his father. After winning ARCA titles in 1968-69, he returned to North Carolina in Ellerbe to become a full-time racer, often listing ‘‘taxicab driver’’ as his occupation on entry forms.
Parsons made 526 starts from 1964 until his 1988 retirement. He ended his career with 283 top-10 finishes, led at least one lap in 192 races and finished no lower than fifth in the points from 1972 to 1980 while earning more than $4 million.
His 1973 championship season was built on endurance and consistency: He won only one of the 28 races that season while second-place finisher Cale Yarborough won four times and David Pearson won 11. But Parsons finished the most miles that year to claim the crown.
He was honored as one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers in 1998, and was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1994. He was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association’s Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame in 1995.
Parsons began broadcasting in the 1980s as a pit reporter for ESPN and TBS, when he was still racing a partial schedule. He moved into the booth for good in 1989 for ESPN and won a Cable ACE Award for best sports analyst in his first season in the booth. He also created the popular ESPN segment ‘‘Buffet Benny’’ on food available at race tracks.
Survivors include wife Terri, sons Kevin and Keith, a former sports writer for The Associated Press, and two granddaughters. Parsons was preceded in death by his first wife, Connie.