It was Mother’s Day, May 9, 1971, and the phone rang at a house in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina.
It wasn’t a normal Mother’s Day phone call. Benny Parsons, in his second full season in NASCAR Cup Series racing, was calling from Virginia with good news. He had won his first race victory.
The phone was handed over to Parsons’ five-year-old son Kevin, who listened to his father describe the victory. Kevin’s first question: “Was Richard Petty there?” “
It was not an empty question. In 1970, Petty won 18 times. In 1971, he won 21 races. In short, we expected him to win every time he took a green flag. So one could forgive Kevin Parsons for wondering if the racing king somehow missed the race won by his father.
Indeed, Petty was there. He was second, one lap behind Parsons.
Parsons’ decisive victory came in what became the final Cup race at the 0.357-mile South Boston Speedway. The Cup schedule was drastically shortened for the 1972 season, and South Boston was one of the short tracks that did not survive the Cup.
Parsons was 29 when he recorded that first victory. It was his 66e race in the series.
Parsons had enjoyed success in the Automobile Racing Club of America, winning the series championship in 1968 and 1969 before logically moving to NASCAR. Kevin, the eldest of his two sons, has fond memories of his father’s many ARCA victories and was not impressed when the NASCAR road proved so difficult.
“My brother grew up going on the victory lanes with Dad,” said Keith Parsons, Benny’s youngest son. “He was saying to daddy, ‘You have to quit NASCAR and go back to ARCA so we can win.’ “
There wasn’t much abandonment at Benny Parsons. Although he struggled at times and often wondered if there would be enough money to make it to the next race, his persistence won the day. He eventually achieved 21 Cup victories, won the 1973 national championship and, after his retirement, enjoyed a successful second career in racing broadcasting.
Parsons died of cancer in 2007. He was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2017.
In 1971, Parsons drove for North Carolina businessman and track owner LG DeWitt, whose team was underfunded compared to the big guns of the day. The historic South Boston victory was important to Parsons and the team in many ways, but it was overshadowed soon after when DeWitt was involved in a serious car crash.
“They shut down the team for several weeks,” Keith Parsons said. “You would think that victory would set them up for success, but the car accident was really bad and for a while it was a cinch if they ever came back to racing.”
The team missed six races in the heart of the 1971 season, including the popular July race at Daytona International Speedway.
“It was a tough time,” Keith said. “My dad talked about it a bit. He didn’t know what he was going to do. He had built his life trying to run. Someone in Nashville knew he was struggling and took him to town every Saturday to compete in the weekly short track race.
That someone was Nashville track promoter Bill Donoho who not only provided Parsons with a car to race on, but also let him stay at Donoho’s house during those race weekends.
DeWitt quickly recovered and his team, with Parsons driving and managing day-to-day operations, returned to the Cup Series in late July in Nashville. Parsons was third. The winner of the race? Richard Petty, of course.
“I think winning that first race in South Boston was important to him,” said Keith. “Richard Petty has always been my father’s hero. I guess he was everyone’s hero. He was the person everyone was trying to beat.
“Dad believed he could do it and was very results oriented. He hadn’t won for a year and a half, and he came from ARCA, where he was the spearhead. He expected more from himself. He felt like that first victory really validated his decision to uproot his family from Detroit and move to a small town in Richmond County, North Carolina.
Parsons was born in North Carolina, but his father moved the family to Detroit when Benny was two. Although Benny spent most of his childhood in North Carolina with his great-grandmother, he moved to Detroit after high school to work with his father in the gas station and taxi business in the elder Parsons. He soon volunteered to work with a local short track team, and his long road to racing success had begun.
Parsons won the Cup championship in 1973 in one of the race’s unusual finishes. Parsons had a significant points lead heading into the final race at North Carolina Motor Speedway and only needed to complete about half of the laps to secure the title. But he was involved in an accident after just 13 laps of the race and his car was badly damaged. His championship shot was hanging by a thread, but members of other crew joined Parsons and his crew and repaired the damage in about an hour. Parsons returned to the track and completed enough laps to secure the title.
In 1975, Parsons scored his biggest victory, taking the Daytona 500 checkerboard after leader David Pearson sped off with six miles to go. As a sign of the respect Parsons had earned in NASCAR, opposing crew members stood up to applaud him as he made his way to victory.
“Here’s what I can say about Benny Parsons,” said Tex Powell, a mechanic who worked with Parsons. “You could walk into any garage and ask anyone who their five favorite people were, and Benny would be on all of those lists.”
But wait … there is more
• Throughout his career, Parsons was often identified as “a former Detroit cab driver”. It is true that he worked in his father’s service-taxi company, but it was mainly as a manager and mechanic. He only drove taxis occasionally, usually when a regular driver was absent from work.
• For years, Parsons has hosted a Christmas party for underprivileged children in his hometown of Ellerbe, North Carolina. Santa Claus made an appearance and there were gifts for everyone. Parsons would often talk about a little boy who approached him at the party after receiving new sneakers and asked if he could really keep them.
• Parsons won the final race of the third season of the International Race of Champions series, beating AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti to the finish line at Daytona International Speedway.