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Monday, November 10, 2008
Take Me Back


Benny Parsons always had a helping hand nearby ... even within opposing teams.

I had a beautiful moment on Friday night.

En route from Charlotte to Greenville, NC for East Carolina-Marshall football game (read The Mag in mid-December and you'll know why), I was listening to a radio broadcast of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race from Phoenix.

I love the Trucks. Everyone within the sport loves the Trucks. Why? Because hanging out in the NCTS garage feels like you're hanging out in the Cup Series garage thirty years ago, before the big money and aerodynamicists arrived.

Truck Series teams still work with skeleton crews, there's still a bunch of guys walking around in there that look like pirates, and after every Truck race—which are usually a helluva lot more entertaining than their big league brethren—you can still find guys sitting around on tires drinking beer and laughing as they rehash the night.

On Friday night Ron Hornaday Jr. started the season's next-to-last NCTS event only six points behind points leader Johnny Benson Jr. in the championship standings. You'd be hard pressed to find two more liked guys in NASCAR, loved and respected across all three of stock car racing's national divisions for their bloodlines, driving ability and of course, winning.

And no one loves a good points race better than racers themselves, and the margin between Johnny and Ron was the closest NASCAR had ever seen with two weeks to go. Everyone knew that and they were jazzed to see what would go down in the desert.

That explains the reaction when Hornaday wrecked on the first lap of the race. Everyone up and down pit road, including Benson's pits, let out a collective "Dammit!" So did I. Driving along a full continent away in Eastern North Carolina.

That's when it happened. The moment.

When Hornaday's totaled Chevy pulled into the garage, his crew started scrambling to get the Silverado in some sort of working condition to go back out and get whatever points they could. But the task was massive and their team owner and leader, Kevin Harvick, was out on the track racing.

Then a couple of guys from another team ran up to help. And a couple more…and then a few more. They came from rival teams, including Roush Racing, a Ford outfit, helping out a Chevy crew. With men wearing uniforms from at least four different teams thrashing away, Hornaday made it back out onto the track to finish 25th, one spot ahead of Benson. Now they will go to next week's season finale in Homestead, FL separated by only three points.

"You want to know how people feel about Ron Hornaday?" Harvick said while standing in Victory Lane. "What happened here tonight is all you need to know."

The moment took me back to a similar rally 35 years earlier, in the Winston Cup season finale of 1973. Benny Parsons took the green flag holding down a slim lead over Cale Yarborough. BP's car was built and crewed by a small group of local mechanics out of tiny Ellerbe, NC. All season long they had held onto the lead with little or no sponsor money and only one win, somehow holding off Richard Petty, Bobby Allison and Yarborough.

But on lap 13, the number 72 spun into the wall with such force that it sheered away one entire side of the ride—sheet metal, roll bars, everything. There sat poor Benny, exposed and heartbroken.They cannibalized their own racecars for parts, someone brought a welder, and a patchwork of friends of enemies started to rebuild BP's Chevy. For more than an hour they re-fabricated his ride and then got him back into the race, albeit 183 laps down. Yarborough finished third and Parsons finished 28th, barely winning his first and only Cup championship.

They towed the car back into the garage and, like Hornaday, Benny's overwhelming likability caused defectors from other teams to come running down pit road to help. They cannibalized their own racecars for parts, someone brought a welder, and a patchwork of friends of enemies started to rebuild BP's Chevy. For more than an hour they re-fabricated his ride and then got him back into the race, albeit 183 laps down. Yarborough finished third and Parsons finished 28th, barely winning his first and only Cup championship.

"If I had never raced another lap in my life, I would have been happy," BP told me in 2006, less than a year before his death the following January. "All I wanted was to be respected by the other people in the sport, even more than winning races. When all those other guys came down there to help us out, we just couldn't believe it. It was a real sign of respect for me, for (crew chief) Travis Carter, and (team owner) L.G. DeWitt."

That moment took place at the North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham—The Rock—which also happened to be the team's home track, just a few miles east of Ellerbe.

On Friday night, the description of Hornaday's helpers in Phoenix naturally made me think of Benny's buddies in Rockingham nearly four decades earlier. As I smiled about them both, I drove over a rolling hill on U.S. Highway 1 and suddenly, there was The Rock, the old racetrack sitting empty in the Sandhills, instantly recognizable by the tall press box that towers over the highway…the Benny Parsons Tower.

Told you it was a beautiful moment.