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Remembering Benny Parsons


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Remembering Benny Parsons

 

By Bruce Mabrito

 

Most of us involved in motorsports have a recollection or special memory of Benny Parsons.

 

Younger Americans knew him as the NBC color-commentator for NASCAR Winston/Nextel Cup races. Those not quite so young remember him as the nice-guy racer who won the 1973 Cup championship and the Daytona 500 in 1975. Parsons accumulated 21 victories from 1964 until his retirement in 1988, with 20 pole positions from a remarkable 526 Grand National/Cup race starts.

 

My up-close-and-personal memories of Benny Parsons were from the 1976 Daytona 24 Hours race, when he drove a highly modified two-door BMW CSL sports coupe. The factory BMW Motorsport team had asked Benny to drive with David Hobbs of England, and they shared the same wheel of their No. 24 BMW for the entire race. They were one of three factory-prepared BMWs brought over for the long, twice-around-the clock race on the paved oval and road course at Daytona International Speedway.

 

Parsons and Hobbs qualified a very respectable second for the race out of 72 starters, right next to the fastest BMW, No. 59, with lead driver Peter Gregg. Jack Steel, my co-driver, and I qualified a lowly 58th in that large field, in our un-sponsored Datsun (Nissan) 240Z.

 

I will never forget seeing that relatively large stock car driver sitting in the pristine and quick BMW on pit road, almost looking out of place. He was shown the best lines through the corners by his fellow BMW road racers and he passed us on the steep Daytona banking at well over 200 miles per hour numerous times.

 

Parsons, wearing an open-face helmet standard for stock car drivers of the day, was always smiling as he roared out of the long Daytona pits. He was friendly to all, even though it wasn’t his normal stock-car crowd, racing with the many road-racers in the premier North American long-distance event.

 

During the race I asked the BMW Motorsport crew chief about American drivers versus European drivers with whom he normally worked. He did not talk about speed or lap times, but he said that Benny Parsons and other Americans who drove for BMW were always “much more involved with the crew and the car. For instance, we had a simple case where a nitrogen bottle (used to “air up” the tires) was leaking through a hose that had not been completely turned off. Benny was standing there and he walked over and shut off the valve, so as to not waste the nitrogen. Most European drivers would never bother to do that. The American drivers seem to have hands-on experience and seem to take better care of the equipment we provide.”

 

Benny Parsons did his share of the driving in that BMW with Hobbs and they finished 10th, completing 481-laps, after some engine problems brought on by water-tainted gasoline that year. The Gregg/Brian Redman/John Fitzpatrick primary BMW factory CSL covered 545-laps (2,092-miles, according to the IMSA record book) for the win. The third factory BMW finished 15th, following the four-hour red flag condition caused by the fuel problems.

 

As our small racing team drove away from the long 3.8-mile Daytona road course circuit – licking our wounds with a 47th place overall, a broken transmission, and stretched overhead-cam chain after only 703 miles of racing – little did we know that the Benny Parsons we had met would some day give us NASCAR Cup information each week on television. He never would have predicted that either.

 

Benny will be sadly missed by a lot of fans and racers. Darrell Waltrip, another NASCAR champion who provides color-commentary for Cup races, said this of his passing: “Benny Parsons was the kindest, sweetest, most considerate person I have every known. He was almost too nice to be a racecar driver and I say that as a compliment. In my 30-odd years of racing Benny Parsons, I never knew of anyone being mad at Benny.”

 

Benny, we will miss your excellent and witty commentary at the start of the 2007 NASCAR Cup season, we will miss your life-long helpfulness and enthusiasm, and we will miss your humor. Benny, you are in our thoughts and you will be a positive addition to the big racetrack in the sky.

 

 

[bruce Mabrito was the motorsports columnist for The San Antonio Light and the Express-News for 20 years. He has raced at Daytona, Sebring, Road Atlanta, Texas World Speedway and other tracks, and is currently competing in the Texas Pro Sedan series.]

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