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Article originally published in 2006 Athlon Sports Racing annual
Benny Parsons won 21 races during a successful Cup career, but it is his voice, and not his driving, that is his calling card for today’s generation of race fans. Parsons has seen plenty of changes over his decades in the sport, and he has educated and entertained countless viewers with that smooth, friendly baritone voice. Athlon Sports’ Norm Partin and Matt Taliaferro sat down with one of the elder statesmen of racing’s broadcast booth to talk about Parsons’ memories of his time on the track and his thoughts about the sport he loves.
Athlon Sports: You are now involved on the TV side of the business, and looking back a few years ago when you got started in racing it was totally different. Can you relay that to the young guys that are coming into the sport?
Benny Parsons: Not really. It’s so much different today than it was 20 years ago, 30 years ago, even 10 years ago. The cars are different, the tracks are different, everything that we do in NASCAR is just so much different. Twenty-five years ago you really needed a driver with experience, three or four years of experience before they could really do well. Newcomers just did not come in and win races. But in 2005 Kyle Busch came in and won two NEXTEL Cup races his first year.
AS: If we go back to 1964 at the Western North Carolina 500, Holman-Moody gave a shot to a young guy named Benny Parsons to do a one-race deal to try to get that ride. Can you give us an insight on that?
BP: Well, 1964 was a tough year for racing, because I guess they lost three or four drivers in 1964. Billy Wade was killed at Daytona, Fireball Roberts was killed in Charlotte, in the 600, and so Ford was looking around for young talent and I had run an ARCA race. I was only in my second year of racing, but I had run an ARCA race in Huntingdon, West Virginia and I was also running locally around the Detroit area, Mount Clemons Speedway, Flat Rock Speedway, and winning races there. Someone said, ‘Well, why don’t we give him a chance? He might be somebody good in stock car racing.’ So they sent me to Holman-Moody and put me in a car and took me to Asheville-Weaverville Speedway in Weaverville, North Carolina to run a race. They had another young guy up there, it was a tryout, and the one that did the best would get a ride to go on and run NASCAR racing. The other young man was Cale Yarborough.
AS: So you were part of the first Gong Show then, right?
BP: That’s right, it was the Gong Show at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway.
AS: Then you came back several years later and started running with L.G. DeWitt and had some pretty immediate success.
BP: Well, yeah, we ran decently. As a matter of fact, the first race that I drove for him was Richmond, Virginia, the February race after Daytona, and we broke a gear that day, but we ran well enough to win the race, but we didn’t finish. We then went to Rockingham and ran decently and had a chance to win a race in Columbia, South Carolina that year, and we finally did get a victory in 1971. And that was South Boston.
AS: There is a story that you have told several times. Your team was broke, you were broke, and you finished third or fourth in Atlanta and won enough money to finish the season.
BP: Well, what had happened was L.G. DeWitt, the owner of the car, was involved in a very serious automobile crash and looked like he might die. When he lay in the hospital, his family, who were not big fans (of racing), said ‘Why don’t we quit the racing business because you can’t take care of it?’
He agreed with them, so he did quit racing. I think this was June of ’71. So what was I gonna do? I had moved my family to Ellerbe, North Carolina, and so Bill Donahoe from the Nashville Speedway, the Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, called me and said if you’re not doing anything how about coming over and running Nashville on Saturday night. I think he paid my way and gave me three hundred bucks or something. So I did that for five or six weeks. Three hundred bucks was as much money as I was making back then. I survived and then about five or six weeks later L.G. got out of the hospital, he got back home and he missed that race car. He called me in his office and said, ‘I think I was a little hasty stopping racing. If you want to, let’s see if we can’t pick up the pieces and start off again.’ He also told me that he didn’t have any money or not a lot of money and to try and do the best we can.
AS: If you got in one of today’s cars, that would almost be a night and day difference, wouldn’t it?
BP: It really would. It’s amazing to me how much smarter or how much better the communication is. I’m not sure exactly how to explain this, but the drivers of today have to be so precise about what their car is doing. Going in the corner, the middle of the corner, coming off the corner. Back 25 years ago the sport was so clumsy as to being what it is today.
AS: Was it more of a banzai-type attitude, where you just got in and put the pedal to the floor and held on?
BP: It was not nearly as sophisticated as it is today. You know some of the drivers today that are really small might have struggled in those cars back then. As you said, you just got in and drove it. Back then the driver made up a lot. I mean, Richard Petty, he made up for a great deal by finding that new groove, that better groove that was faster, and today the cars are so precise that they run in the same place all the time. That’s why I love to see the cars go to Atlanta when the drivers have to move around on the race track to find that new groove and those cars are three wide. The drivers then — they got in it, and if the car wasn’t handling they had to adjust their style to make the car handle it.
AS: A crew chief told me that when he started racing, aero was an afterthought, and now it’s everything — that just one ding can take a car out of contention. Has that hurt the racing?
BP: I don’t want to be a guy that sticks his head in the mud and is against the cars getting better, but it is a shame. It really irritates me when those fenders get bent on pit road at 35 mph, and it eliminates a guy’s chance of winning. That’s really frustrating for me.
AS: In today’s sport, NASCAR is projecting rock ’n’ roll, younger/better. Do you see that the rock ’n’ roll thing is kind of leaving those of us that have been around a while behind?
BP: I think that NASCAR’s old-time fans, like myself, I think they got us. I think we’ve watched enough and we’re hooked. I think we are going to continue to watch, and I don’t think that they can go out and attract the young crowd today with — as much as I like bluegrass, as much as I like country music — I don’t think that they can attract the young crowd today with that environment. I think they’ve got to attract it with rock ’n’ roll and having young minds. That’s how they’re gonna be able to make this sport grow.
AS: Many fans complain that the racing isn’t that good anymore because of aero, but back in New Hampshire, Newman and Stewart put on a show during those last three laps.
BP: I’ve not really been a fan of New Hampshire, because it’s one of those racetracks we talked about, that you really need to run in the same position — same spot on the racetrack — every car needs to be in the same spot to go fast. I like the Homestead racetrack, with their variable banking. I don’t know why in the world Martinsville didn’t do that when they had the concrete come up. I don’t know, when they rebuilt the corners, why they didn’t put in two different bankings in the corners. I don’t understand why Loudon (New Hampshire) doesn’t do that. I don’t understand Kansas City and Chicago. I’m not a fan of Loudon because all of the cars have to run in the same spot. But that was terrific between Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart.
AS: I remember qualifying in your day — it was nothing but white knuckles. What was it like when you did that, knowing that you were so close to the edge?
BP: Just terrifying. Qualifying at Daytona Beach back in the ’70s and ’80s was without a doubt the most terrifying thing that a driver did the entire season. Those two qualifying laps were absolutely unbelievable.
AS: We remember when Cale (Yarborough) in the 28 car had his qualifying — made the first lap, set the record, and second lap, car takes off like an airplane. When you’ve got to follow that, what’s the fear factor like at that level?
BP: Well, thank God, I think that I had finished with my qualifying lap when Cale did that. I surely would not have wanted to go out there after that. That’s like in a race that you’re in and you see a terrible, terrible crash and you feel like that the driver may be seriously injured or maybe even killed. And man, I tell you what, they throw that green flag again — man, that first lap’s hard!
AS: That’s part of the mental game in racing that some of the other sports can never, never understand. It’s hard to admit it at the time, but when it’s over, the holding your breath and shaking and white knuckles is pretty easy to talk about, isn’t it?
BP: Yeah, it really is. And you know, the adrenaline is just going wide open — those qualifying laps and running at Daytona back when the cars were unrestricted and you ran on the edge every doggone lap. I mean, the adrenaline was just unbelievable.
AS: I know winning the championship has to be the highlight — back in ’73 — and under the circumstances…
BP: No. No. No. That’s not it.
AS: That’s not it? So, what is it?
BP: Winning the Daytona 500. Because, you see, a championship in 1973 was 28 races long. So you go all year long running this championship, racing in this championship. And when it’s over (the final race of the season), that’s just 1/28 of the puzzle. A race, any race, is — when they wave the checkered flag, it’s over. And the Daytona 500 is the biggest stock car race that we have. And, you know, everybody’s heard of the Daytona 500 and everybody wants to win that.
AS: And the last few laps, I bet a lot of nights on your back under a race car and sleeping in the backseat trying to get to the next race — all that stuff flashed before you as you’re on those last few laps?
BP: Well, not right then. But that’s all I could think about afterwards. After the checkered flag waved and I’m in Victory Lane. And then, when you have time to sit down and say ‘I just won the Daytona 500,’ those are the things that you think about. You know, I started racing on a quarter-mile dirt track in a $50 car. Guy bought a car for $50 and gave it to me. Trust me, it’s a long way from that quarter-mile racetrack to Daytona Victory Lane.
AS: And the way that you won that, just taking the lead right there at the end. Was there any that were more exciting?
BP: The Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte — the race that Darrell (Waltrip) and I had in 1980.
AS: The record book says five lead changes in the last 25 laps. But that race was not over until actually the checker.
BP: Yeah. The last 75 laps, I think, we ran nose-to-tail. Stop, come back on the racetrack. It was a tire situation. They had had tire problems that day. So, the last stop that we both made we couldn’t change tires because we had a set on there that would live. And we knew we couldn’t put anything else on there, so we just fueled only on that last stop. So we came back out on the same place we left and just kept on racing.
AS: NBC has made the decision not to follow through after next year. Have you had a chance to figure out what Benny’s gonna do then, or are there opportunities with other people?
BP: We don’t have any idea.
AS: On TV, when you were putting your crew together, was there a philosophy meeting and a plan, or did it just happen?
BP: It just kind of happened. The only real plan … I remember two plans throughout the years in television. Back in the ’80s, driving and doing TV part-time, I was in North Wilkesboro doing a show for ESPN and the producers were going to do this and it seemed to me to be a highly technical piece. And I said ‘Well, shouldn’t we explain that better to the viewer? Will they understand what we’re talking about?’ And the producer said ‘We are doing this broadcast for the race fan. Let the novices catch up.’
AS: Yeah. That had to be an about-face, didn’t it?
BP: Yeah. And I said ‘Wow.’ And that really is the philosophy that ESPN had all along, was, you know, they did the races for the fans. And then, when I went to work for ESPN full-time in 1989, we went to Rockingham to do our first race and Neil Goldberg, the producer, had Bob Jenkins, Ned Jarrett and myself. And he said ‘OK, now here’s what I want … I want Benny to bring some excitement – you know, yell and scream, and bring that excitement – to the broadcast. And Ned, you know, you’re the sensible guy. You keep everything in line and in shape.’ And so, that’s how Ned and I did the ESPN broadcast.
AS: How long did it take for you and Wally Dallenbach to develop your noticeable chemistry?
BP: I think it’s kind of like driving a race car. I think that it took some time to do the races together and understand what our roles were going to be and what have you.
AS: We all got a wake-up call at Phoenix with Kurt Busch. Obviously the TV people had to decide how to cover this. Did that create any issues for you as far as the TV end?
BP: No. No, it did not.
AS: You just report the facts?
BP: Yeah. Allen (Bestwick) went to talk to Kurt (Busch), (Bill) Weber reported and I don’t even know that I mentioned it.
AS: Is there time when a guy like Benny Parsons, one of the most respected people in the business, goes to a driver and puts his arm around him and says ‘Son, listen up a little bit’?
BP: Ahh. (long pause) I … Yeah I do. I do … to the drivers. But I don’t do it to someone of Kurt Busch’s stature. I mean, after all, he’s a Nextel Cup champion. If somebody is very, very young in their first year of the Busch (Series), or maybe even the first year of the Nextel Cup, and I see something that I think will help them, I’d go to them and I’d tell them ‘I think this’ll help you.’ But, as I said, Kurt is certainly old enough and has been around long enough that he knows right from wrong.
AS: Is there any driver on the circuit today that reminds you of yourself, when you were driving?
BP: The other day someone asked that question and I think I compared myself to say, Bobby Labonte. I think, you know, we raced a great deal the same.
AS: If you had a chance to run NASCAR for one day, what would be the first thing you’d do?
BP: Maybe limit the amount of cars on pit road. I think it’s just ridiculous that a guy can go out and race around Daytona and Talladega at 180 miles-per-hour, 190-miles-per-hour, three-wide, whatever, and he comes into the pit to make a pit stop at 55 miles-per-hour and gets eliminated. I think that’s stupid. I talked to a guy recently who had a suggestion. He said what we need to do is make Rockingham a dirt track and have a Nextel Cup dirt race. And I said, “You know what? That’s a fantastic idea.”
AS: Who’s the guy that you’re looking at right now that you can see being the top guy, or one of them, in five years?
BP: Carl Edwards, right now. If he could just … He has the ability on the racetrack; he has the personality to just become a huge, mega-star. I mean, he is the whole package. He’s a sponsor’s dream. He’s got that ‘Aw, gee-golly whiz.’
AS: In quick answers — So far the Chase has just finished its second year – success or not?
AS: The racing back to the yellow and the sensors in the track, has that worked or not?
BP: Yes. Very much so.
AS: Do you like the impound rule?
BP: I like the idea. But I don’t like it in its present form.
AS: Do we have too many races? 36 being too many?
AS: You want more, don’t you?
BP: Here’s the deal. The teams today, the top teams today, they’re out there each and every Sunday competing to win. They have enough people on their staff, their sponsor, they get enough money that everyone can have a day off. And most of them get a complete day off. And then for the road crew, Thursday becomes a travel day and most of those guys don’t leave until the afternoon. So they’ve got a half-day off Thursday. When we raced back in the ’70s, nobody had any days off, unless there wasn’t a race that weekend.
AS: You didn’t get to fly to many of them (the races), either.
BP: No, you had to drive. That’s when you got Saturday and Sunday off when they didn’t have a race. Well, now these guys – yes there are 38 weekends – but at least they get a couple of days off in the week. It is a lot of races. And the drivers, they don’t have to drive to the venues or the racetracks anymore. They jump in an airplane and go. They leave home Thursday, come back home Sunday night. And they don’t have to go to the shop and work on that thing 10-12 hours a day.
AS: You want to take a shot at predicting the 2006 champion?
BP: Tony Stewart.
AS: Is there anybody out there running in the lesser divisions that if you had a magic wand, you would want to put them in a 24 car, 20 car, 16 car, or something like that?
BP: No. Just as a spectator, watching the race, you don’t get to meet the personalities. You don’t get to go in and see what they’re made of, talk to them. And you can’t learn anything by just watching them on the racetrack. You can learn something if you know what the rest of the package is.