Nascar legend Benny Parsons
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I remember the first and only time I met Benny Parsons. It was in a smoke-choked media room that was too small to handle the growing number of journalists who were descending upon Indianapolis, Ind., to cover the Brickyard 400 race.
It was the late 1990s and the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) circuit was becoming more popular, and fast. Slick, media-savvy drivers such as Jeff Gordon were drawing crowds with their California good looks. And Benny Parsons - one of the last good ol' boys and as un-California as they came - was loving every minute of it.
As the door swung open on that media center one broiling Sunday morning, the extra-large Parsons made sure to make his presence known in a big way.
"Well," he bellowed as he made his way through the fog of cigarette smoke and tap-tap-tapping of computer keyboards, "it sure as hell is good to see so many new faces around here! Now ya'll make sure ya come back next year, too! Don't worry. We'll save your seat!"
That was Benny.
He loved driving and did it well for more than 20 years. He loved talking about NASCAR and did that well for another 20 on national TV and radio.
So when he died Jan. 16, 2007, after a lost battle with lung cancer, the accolades and tributes came out with the kind of fervor reserved for legends. He was one of them.
To many, Parsons was just as much a friend as he was a racing icon.
Everyone had their own story.
Driver Michael Waltrip said Parsons gave him the courage to propose to his wife in Victory Lane. Racer Greg Biffle said he wouldn't be driving without the help of Parsons, who just happened to spot an up-and-coming Biffle in Tucson, Ariz., one day.
Parsons was all about opportunity.
Born on July 12, 1941, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Wilkes, N.C., he was raised in a home that lacked running water and electricity. But he turned every chance into something greater. Raised by his grandmother, Parsons moved to Detroit, Mich., after high school because there was work there. He got his start driving a taxicab for his father's gas station and cab company.
When he began driving race cars in his early 20s on the ARCA circuit in North Carolina - the minor leagues of stock-car racing - he even listed "taxicab driver" as his official occupation. Eventually, given a shot, he drove his way into a NASCAR ride.
Parsons made 526 starts from 1964 until he retired in 1988, ending his career with 283 top-10 finishes and earning more than $4 million. He led at least one lap in an astonishing 192 races.
In 1973, with only three years of full-time driving on the circuit, he grabbed his first and only NASCAR title despite the fact he won only one of the 28 races that year. It was the consistency that did it for him.
"A moment that I will never forget," Parsons said.
Mostly, he never made anyone forget him. Parsons began working in the 1980s as a pit reporter for ESPN and Turner Broadcasting when he was driving on a partial schedule. Eventually he moved into the broadcast booth full time and became a track fixture.
His personality dominated.
"The cars are nuts and bolts, but he talked through that," Waltrip said. "He was able to deliver to the people. He just tried to be passionate about what he believed and he did a great job of explaining what people were seeing."
But one thing caught up with him that he couldn't explain: cancer.
Parsons died from a disease that first invaded one lung, then the other. But he was optimistic, right up until the end.
"As my radiation oncologist told me today, John Wayne lived and had a great career with one lung," Parsons wrote Dec. 18, 2006. "There is no reason why I can't do the same. If given a choice between cancer or losing a lung, I would say that I got the right end of the deal."
So many others also got the right end of the deal.
They got a chance to meet Parsons, either in person or through TV.
I had my chance. And if I close my eyes I can still see him charging through that media room, slapping backs, shaking hands and living in the glory of a sport that gave him so much; a sport that owed him even more.
Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Media. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/media by using the contact link. Wheelbase supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.