Parsons' passing a major loss for NASCAR, its fans


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Tuesday's news was almost more than the NASCAR community could bear. Only days after Bobby Hamilton's death, Benny Parsons had passed away at a Charlotte hospital.

Both men were victims of cancer. Both appeared healthy and vibrant only a few months ago.

The media center at Daytona, normally a lively and boisterous place, fell painfully silent when told of Parsons' passing.

Even the garage area was strangely quiet. The only sound was the whine of the cars as drivers continued testing on the track where Parsons won the Daytona 500 in 1975.

Kyle Petty was scheduled to speak to the media after the morning test session, but he was so overcome with grief that he said he just couldn't do it.

His legendary father, Richard, and Parsons were good friends who had many racing battles through the years.

The start of a new season is supposed to be a happy time filled with promise and enthusiasm for what's to come. But NASCAR is dealing with the sadness of losing two true ambassadors of the sport.

It just seems so unfair. Both men were taken early -- Hamilton at 49 and Parsons at 65. Both were NASCAR-loyal through and through. Both represented everything good about racing.

Hamilton was the guy who overcame an impoverished youth and found a way to win at NASCAR's highest level. His final accomplishment as a driver came two years before his death when he won the Craftsman Truck Series championship at age 47.

Parsons also was a NASCAR champion, winning the Winston Cup title in 1973 at age 32. But it wasn't Parsons' racing skills that made him beloved by so many.

Most of us, when we were children, heard this from our mothers: "If you can't say anything good about someone, don't say anything at all."

And most of us forgot that advice as we got older. Not Parsons. He lived by it.

If there ever was man who fit the credo of Will Rogers, it was Parsons. Benny never met a man he didn't like. And if he did, he kept it to himself.

That's the kind of person he was. Parsons liked people and people liked him.

"I could always tell when Benny was around," said NASCAR team owner Len Wood. "I could hear that laugh of his. He could be five stalls away in the garage and I could tell it was him. You could be having a really bad day, but Benny always made you feel better."

The first time I met Parsons was in 1995, when I was still a newbie in covering NASCAR. We were introduced briefly in the Daytona garage while he was speaking to a couple of crew guys.

It was the typical, "Hi, how are you" kind of thing. I didn't come in contact with Parsons again for more than two years. We were walking toward each other at Texas Motor Speedway.

I planned to give just a quick hello as I walked by, assuming he wouldn't know me from Adam. I was wrong. Parsons extended his hand and said, "Hi, Terry, how are you?"

I was stunned that he remembered my name. He stopped and we spoke briefly. I don't remember what was said, but I'll always remember that he knew who I was two years after meeting me for 10 seconds.

That was Benny. He grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina where everyone knew your name. He played high school football before his family moved north. Way north.

Some fans might be surprised to know Parsons moved to Detroit after high school and worked as a driver for his father's cab company before trying his hand at NASCAR.

Parsons raced sparingly in NASCAR for four seasons before getting a chance to run full time in 1970 at age 29. He had 23 top-10s and finished eighth in the standings.

Three years later he was the Cup champion, winning the crown through consistency. He won only one race that season compared to 11 victories for David Pearson.

Parsons would rank in the top 10 for each of the next eight seasons. He continued driving through 1988 before beginning his broadcasting career as a pit reporter for ESPN. He worked as an analyst for NBC and TNT's NASCAR telecasts the last six seasons.

"Benny loved what he did," said driver Ward Burton. "I think people should know he was comfortable with his place in life. This is all he knew. I think if he couldn't be in this garage, he would have been lost."

Some people were critical of his broadcasting style because Parsons rarely made a disparaging comment about a driver. And he often took NASCAR's side on important issues.

Parsons was no Howard Cosell. He didn't want to be. He wouldn't rip his former rivals the way Johnny Miller does at times on NBC golf telecasts.

It isn't that Parsons feared what drivers would think of him. There just wasn't a negative bone in his body.

He always looked at the world from an optimistic perspective, even after learning in July that he had lung cancer. It was shocking news, especially since Parsons stopped smoking in 1978.

But Parsons kept that giant smile on his round face throughout. He continued working, but had trouble with his voice on one telecast during the summer. Parsons also missed a couple of telecasts while undergoing treatment, but soon returned and said he felt good.

Parsons never stopped smiling, never stopped laughing and never stopped looking for the good in every situation.

"The best thing about Benny is, he was always happy," driver Matt Kenseth said. "He loved NASCAR and I think that's what made him happy."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.