Benny Parsons, who charmed television audiences with his folksy demeanor as much as he impressed fans with his ability as a driver, died Tuesday at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte following complications from lung cancer. He was 65.
The former self-proclaimed Detroit taxi driver-turned-NASCAR racer never forgot his humble rural North Carolina roots, and it came through in every aspect of his life.
Parsons dies at 65Benny Parsons died Jan. 16 at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte
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Even though he gained fame as the 1973 Winston Cup champion and winner of the 1975 Daytona 500, Parsons understood that as a broadcast analyst, it was his job to aim the spotlight away from himself.
"I heard someone say this one time and I thought it was fabulous," Parsons said. "Everyone can't be stars. Someone has to sit on the sidewalk and clap as they go by.
"We announcers on TV that talk about sports are simply the people sitting on the sidewalk clapping as the parade goes by. We are no longer the stars. The guys on the racetracks and in football and basketball games -- those are the stars."
Still Parsons was a star in his own right. He was born in 1941 in Wilkes County, N.C., but resided for much of his life in Ellerbe, just a few miles up the road from Rockingham, home of North Carolina Motor Speedway. It was there that perhaps Parsons' greatest accomplishment as a driver took place in the 1973 season finale.
Holding a slim lead over Richard Petty, Parsons' car was heavily damaged in a Lap 13 accident. However, with help from a number of different teams in the garage area, Parsons was able to get back on the track, completing enough laps to finish 28th and win the title.
Parsons' racing career came somewhat by accident. When his parents moved north to Detroit following World War II, Parsons helped work at his father's service station.
One evening in 1963, a truck towing a racecar stopped at the station for fuel. Parsons was invited to join them and hopped into the bed of the pickup on the way to nearby Mount Clemens Speedway. According to the story, when the regular driver failed to show up, Parsons volunteered to drive.
Parsons made his first visit to Daytona that same year.
"I had become a huge race fan and had been going to the races with some guys that were running the ARCA series up in the Midwest. I didn't know a soul [in Daytona], and couldn't get in the garage area," he said.
"But I would buy my infield ticket for three or four dollars -- whatever it was to come in -- and just hang on the fence and watch those cars being pushed by. I would've paid anything I had in my pocket just to push -- you know, [Fred] Lorenzen's car and Ned Jarrett's car and Fireball [Robert's] car."
The highlight of the trip, Parsons recalled, was when he met H.B. Bailey's wife in the lobby of the hotel where they were staying.
"She slipped me a pit pass, so I got in for about two hours one day," Parsons said. "It was the highlight of my life, getting inside the garage area and getting close to those racecars."
Parsons quickly made a name for himself in the Midwest racing ranks, winning ARCA rookie of the year honors in 1965, then capturing the ARCA championship in 1968 and 1969.
He made his NASCAR debut in 1964, earning $250 for a 21st-place finish after his Holman-Moody Ford began overheating.
Parsons qualified for the first of 20 Daytona 500 starts in 1969, finishing eighth in the No. 88 Ford. He would go on to run the entire 1970 season in L.G. DeWitt's No. 72, posting the first of 21 career victories at Virginia's South Boston Speedway in 1971.
When David Pearson spun out while leading with two laps remaining in the 1975 Daytona 500, Parsons was there to take the checkered flag, giving Chevrolet its first win in that race since 1960.
Parsons also became the first driver to qualify a stock car at over 200 mph when he won the pole at Talladega for the 1982 Winston 500 at a speed of 200.176 mph.
After retiring as an active driver following the 1988 season, Parsons joined ESPN as a race analyst, winning an Ace Award in 1989 and an Emmy in 1996. He moved over to NBC and TNT when those networks began NASCAR coverage in 2001.
In July, Parsons revealed that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Parsons admitted he had been a smoker but had kicked the habit nearly 30 years before.
"The first thing everyone asks me is, 'Are you a smoker?'," Parsons said at the time. "The answer is that I smoked my last cigarette way back in 1978 and since then I've hated being around smoking. I don't even allow anyone in my foursome to smoke on the golf course."
After treatment, the 65-year-old announced in October that his cancer was in full remission.
"Three months ago my family doctor called me into his office and told me I had lung cancer," Parsons said at the time. "So Rick Hendrick told me if I was going to fight cancer, you have to get [oncologist Steven A.] Limentani. He helped Rick through his leukemia 10 years ago. So we did.
"The last three months we have been battling the disease. Then Wednesday, I had a scan and [Limentani] called me Wednesday afternoon with the best news: 'The cancer is gone ... see ya.' "
However, Parsons was unable to attend the Nextel Cup Awards Ceremony in New York as the cancer treatment reportedly left his left lung too damaged to function properly, according to a report in the Charlotte Observer.
He was admitted to the hospital for the final time on Dec. 26 as his condition progressively worsened.
Parsons was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1994 and named one of NASCAR's 50 greatest drivers in 1998.
January 16, 2007
08:11 PM EST (01:11 GMT)