Two-time ARCA national champion, NASCAR Cup champion and television motorsports analyst Benny Parsons died Tuesday morning at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte following complications with lung disease. He was 65.
Parsons was the 1968 and 1969 ARCA national champion before taking the next step into the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series where he reigned as national champion in 1973, and won the Daytona 500 in 1975.
Upon his retirement from driving in 1988, Parsons stepped into the TV booth as commentator/analyst for ESPN prior to his tenure at NBC and TNT.
Parsons, who was born in Wilkes County, North Carolina in 1941, moved to Detroit, Michigan when his parents moved north right after World War II. He worked as a taxi driver in the Detroit area in the early 60s before starting his stock car career at Mt. Clemens Speedway (MI) in 1963, before becoming the ARCA Rookie of the Year in 1965, finishing 7th in points that season.
"I was 18 years old at a gas station in Detroit," Parsons said. "My family had just recently moved up from North Carolina, when I noticed this race car, a #98. I asked the 2 guys, Dick Gold and Wayne Bennett, where they were
headed; they told me, 'we're going to an ARCA race in Anderson, Indiana.' Then came the question that changed my life forever; 'Do you want to go?'; I hopped in their truck and away I went. Then I bought my first race car - it was a figure-8 car for $50 bucks; it was a sorry-lookin' old beat up thing but we made the best of it. In fact, when we went to pick it up for the first time; I remember thinking to myself, man did we get ripped off. But I won my first race in a figure-8 race at Flat Rock Speedway in that car a short time later. I was hooked."
Parsons also wrote the forward in ARCA's hardcover 50th anniversary book in 2002.
"Thank goodness for John Marcum (ARCA founder) and the ARCA Series," Parsons said. "It was in 1964, my second year of racing. In June or July a friend let me drive his 1963 Ford in a race at Ona, West Virginia just outside of Huntington. There happened to be some Ford Motor Company officials there that day and John Marcum said to them, 'Ford should give that young man some help.'
"Naturally, nothing happened right away but John planted that seed that sprouted in 1968 when Ford did give me some help. With that help from the Detroit connection I was able to win some races and the championship two years in a row.
"Yes, I had some success in NASCAR but my fondest memories are of Wayne Bennett, Dick Gold, Odie Skeen, John Thornton, Earl Stephens, Tim McHugh - Lord the lists could go on forever - but I must give a special thanks to Jack Bowsher for his help and guidance. And to my guys who ran up and down I-75 every weekend throughout the summers - Ralph Young, Bryan Phillips, Wayne King, Lenny Mack and Bobby Crittendon. I think if we could turn back the clock and calendar
Benny Parsons (NBC Photo)
about 35 years, we could still give Frank Kimmel a run for the ARCA championship."
In all, Parsons won 16 ARCA national events at a wide range of tracks on pavement and dirt during the 1968 and 1969 seasons, including the 300-miler at Daytona Int’l Speedway on February 16, 1969. His career-first ARCA win came on March 22, 1968 at Pan-American Speedway in San Antonio, Texas, and his final ARCA win came at ARCA’s hometown track Toledo Speedway on August 2, 1969. Parsons also posted two other wins at Toledo in 1968 on May 5 and July 20.
Parsons had the most success at one of the circuit’s most difficult tracks – on the high-banks of Dayton Speedway where he earned 4 victories including a grueling 500-lapper there on September 8th, 1968. Parsons won his first race at Dayton on June 30, 1968, and 2 more in 1969 on May 4 and June 29.
Parsons also showed plenty of talent on dirt tracks, winning at the famed Eldora Speedway on August 11, 1968.
Parsons (LR) with ARCA founder John Marcum (L). (ARCA Photo)
"I'd have to say winning at Eldora stands out in my mind as one of my favorite victories. My first ARCA win in San Antonio, Texas also stands out there as a big deal. parsonskatona.jpgWinning at Daytona in '69 was pretty neat too. We were shapin' up to have some fond memories at Daytona in 1970 too; we sat on the pole and were running real good in the race when, all of a sudden, the car was beginning to push real bad; it didn't want to turn. Then, bam, the right front tire blew and we slammed the turn one wall. Back then, I was still fairly new to the superspeedways and I didn't quite yet know what it felt like to have a tire going down. I knew what it felt like on the short-tracks, but it was, I found out that day, a different feeling on the speedways. Anyway, we did what we could to get the car back in shape for the next Sunday's Daytona 500. Back then, we used our ARCA car for the Daytona 500."
Parson also posted dirt track wins at the Clark County Fairgrounds in Springfield, Ohio on August 17, 1968 and at Williams Grove Speedway (PA) on June 1, 1969.
Other ARCA national victories for Parsons included 2 at Salem Speedway on April 28, 1968 and September 15, 1968, Heidelberg Speedway (PA) on May 10, 1968 and Lorain County Speedway (OH) on July 4, 1968.
Parsons also won 2 ARCA pole awards at Daytona Int’l Speedway in ’68 and ’70 before making his move into the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series ranks in 1970, where he made 526 career starts earning 199 top-5 finishes and 283 top-10s, including 21 victories and 20 pole awards.
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.
Parsons was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1994 becoming the first-ever ARCA national champion inducted into the Hall of Fame. He was also named one of NASCAR's 50 greatest drivers in 1998.
In 2002, Parsons was the Guest of Honor at the ARCA RE/MAX Series national championship awards banquet where he received ARCA's highest honor - the Marcum Award.
"ARCA is extremely important to racing. There can't be just the Nextel Cup. You've got to have a place to learn; and ARCA provides that opportunity for so many drivers. It's the reason I've been able to have so much success in the business. Without ARCA, I wouldn't have been the '73 Cup champion or I wouldn't be in the NBC broadcast booth. It gave me my shot in big-time motorsports; and I've never forgotten it. ARCA will always be very important to me, and will continue to be for so many aspiring young drivers."
Back in the late 1960's, Parsons was able to double dip in NASCAR (Top - NASCAR Photo) and in ARCA. (Bottom - ARCA Photo)