Remembering Benny Parsons: 8 years since we lost beloved ‘BP’

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With things like raising families, job changes, a struggling economy and more taking up so much of our collective time, it’s easy to understand that eight years can pass by fairly quickly.

But sometimes, especially if you work in the NASCAR industry or are a longtime fan, a moment comes along every so often where you stop dead in your tracks and begin a sentence that you say to yourself, “My God, has it REALLY been eight years …”

You pause briefly, almost incredulous, and then add, “… since we lost Benny Parsons? Where has that time gone?”

Yes, Friday marked the eighth anniversary of Benny’s death from lung cancer.

Having done some boxing in his younger days, Benny put up quite the battle. But sadly, within only a few months of being diagnosed, and no matter how many different treatments he went through to try and beat his foe, Benny was unfairly taken from us.

As Billy Joel sings, “Only the good die young,” and Benny was both as good as they get and far too young to pass away at the age of 65.

I’ll never forget when I heard of Benny’s passing and where I was at.

NASCAR was having a preseason test at Daytona International Speedway. It was a rather gloomy and chilly morning as I pulled into the infield media parking lot with my daughter, who was off from college and accompanied me to Florida for a few days of what was supposed to be warm weather.

I had literally brought the rental car to a stop, put the transmission in park, was just about to turn off the ignition when the sad, sad news came over the radio that the man everyone lovingly referred to as “BP” had passed away.

I’ve been around death a lot, including at racetracks, but Benny’s passing was surreal. As my daughter and I walked through the garage area, I saw more than a few people crying.

I saw several drivers, crew chiefs and team members come together in small groups, long looks upon their faces.

You didn’t have to ask what they were talking about in almost hushed whispers. They, too, had just heard about Benny’s passing.

Almost everywhere I went, everywhere I looked, it was almost as if time had stopped in Daytona. Instead of wondering who was going to be fastest in practice that day, you just kept hearing the words over and over, “Benny” and “BP.”

Practice was late in starting that day. The official reason was supposedly weather, but I’ve always thought it actually had more to do with Benny’s passing.

Eventually, action started on the track and business was conducted as usual.

And in fitting Parsons fashion, what started as a terrible day – weather-wise and emotionally – became a nicer day as the hours and minutes clicked by. The sun even came out and warmed up the place.

To this day, I still think Benny had something to do with that. He wouldn’t want us moping around and feeling bad about him when there was racin’ to be done, even if it was just practice.

Parsons had such a unique way about himself. He was as blue collar as they get, born in North Carolina, raised up north in Detroit, where he drove a taxi for a while before moving back south to find his fame and fortune in NASCAR.

He’d often joke that even when he became a NASCAR star, he was still driving an old taxi – that’s what he liked to call stock cars back in the day.

I remember him laughing once, “Yeah, I went from driving a taxi in Detroit to driving a taxi in the south. Same kinda thing.”

Back in 2005 during the annual NASCAR Awards Week in New York, Parsons, my wife and myself were the only occupants of a mini-bus that shuttled us from the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to a celebration party across Manhattan in honor of Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart.

The ride lasted about 20 minutes and we chatted like we all had been lifelong friends. Truth be told, Benny knew me somewhat, while he had never met my wife and vice-versa.

Talking with Benny made a big impression on my wife (and trust me, as the wife of a sportswriter who has met dozens of star athletes over our long marriage, she does not get impressed very easily).

After we exited the bus and Benny bid us adieu, my wife remarked, “That has to be one of the nicest men I’ve ever met in NASCAR.”

She paused and then slightly recanted her comment, adding, “Actually, one of the nicest men I’ve ever met, period.”

Truer words were never spoken.

Even though he came from a rough part of Detroit, Benny had a genuine, downhome Southern charm that folks just loved.

And oh, how he loved folks, be they fans, media, drivers, crew chiefs, pretty much anyone connected with NASCAR.

Benny was the common thread. People knew they could confide in him and that he wouldn’t betray that confidence and trust.

He was a great advisor, kept secrets secret, and was always positive and cheerful (even while fighting that damn cancer).

And he was also arguably one of the greatest storytellers the sport has ever known. He could regale and keep you in stitches for hours, if not days, on end.

For those who knew him, Parsons didn’t have an enemy in the world – even the guys he used to race against. And he was a very tough competitor, winning 21 races, including the 1973 Winston Cup championship and the biggest race victory of his career, the 1975 Daytona 500. It’s no wonder he was chosen one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers back in 1998.

But once he got out of that old taxi of a race car, he was as sweet and warm as fresh baked peach cobbler.

If Parsons’ name were to appear in a dictionary, perhaps the first word to describe him in the definition would be “beloved.”

Indeed, Benny was beloved. His face rarely was without that famous smile. He loved to give people hearty pats on the back for either a job well done or compassion for trying yet coming up short.

As I was preparing this column, I looked at Benny’s obituary once again on Legacy.com. For most people who’ve passed, maybe a few dozen remembrances are left by family and friends.

As of this writing late Friday afternoon, Benny had nearly 2,400 testimonials.

That’s most definitely beloved.

As I reflect back on Benny and how life has gone on over the last eight years, I’m sure somewhere Benny is having a grand time with some of the sport’s legends, guys like Dale Earnhardt, Lee Petty, Bill France Sr. and Jr., Davey Allison and so many more.

They’re probably swapping stories and telling jokes, invariably replaying some of the great races over the years they saw or broadcast or competed in.

As I said at the beginning of this column, it’s so hard to believe that it’s been eight years – eight very long years – since Benny Parsons left us.

Even 25 or 50 years from now, it’ll still seem like it was only yesterday that we lost BP.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski