Parsons now provides his years of insight as a commentator for ESPN
One month before the Pepsi Firecracker 400 at Daytona, Richard Petty’s 200th
With some drafting help from Richard Petty and a second-to-last lap crash by race leader D
Benny Parsons, 56, host of this month's Scrapbook: Memories of NASCAR '47-'97, won the '73 Winston Cup championship, scored 21 victories, 13 of these wins on superspeedways, and grossed almost $4 million in a 20-year big-league driving career. He retired as a driver in 1988. Parsons, a North Carolina native who grew up near North Wilkesboro and started racing in Michigan in 1963, needs no further introduction as a popular ESPN motorsports commentator. He and his wife, Terri, reside near Concord, North Carolina.
People who were in the garage at Rockingham for the October 21, 1973 race, when I miraculously won my first and only Winston Cup championship, still tell me they experienced one of the most dramatic hours in racing. It certainly was an anxious moment for me. I had a 194.35-point lead (under the old points system) over Richard Petty going into the season finale.
I qualified the L.G. DeWitt Racing Chevrolet fifth, and the race started perfectly. The first four or five cars pulled about a half-straight ahead of me and the next group was a half-straight behind, leaving me where I wanted to be--by myself. At that time we had two-way radios, but no spotters. On the 13th lap (of 492), I came off Turn 2 and saw a car that had spun sitting in the track between me and the leaders. I tried to turn under it but caught the front end right behind my right-front tire.
There was a big collision, but my car didn't spin. I got the engine fired, but the car wouldn't roll. The right side was gone, I don't mean sheetmetal, the rollbars were gone. My greatest fear, a wreck, was reality. My heart sank because we had everything there to fix the car except rollbars. I was just sick. I knew I was going to lose the championship. We neglected to put a wrecker on standby, so we lost four or five valuable minutes getting the car to the garage. We looked at the damage and said, it's over.
Somebody suggested cutting the rollbars out of another car. Ralph Moody, whose engine shop furnished power for our team after he left Holman-Moody, came (to the race) with another team and driver Bobby Mausgrover. The car was parked in the garage and was the only one there that hadn't made the field. Moody said to cut the bars out of the car, he'd explain and settle up later. While the bars were being welded in place, members of my team and numerous volunteers from other teams replaced the rear-end housing, the trailing arms, steering linkage, and made other repairs. One hour and 15 minutes later, at the 136-lap mark, I got back on the racetrack.
As I drove my air-conditioned modified down the backstretch, people stood in the grandstand in a wave effect as I approached, and the wave preceded me all the way to the far end of the front grandstand. Watching that wave was incredible. We made 308 laps and finished 28th, enough to save the championship and beat Cale Yarborough, who finished third in the race, by 67.15 points.
After a disastrous season that was so frustrating, I thought of quitting. But fate smiled on me at the Daytona 500 and gave me the biggest thrill of my racing career. Richard Petty’s Dodge was in a class by itself. But during the race a radiator seam split and he had to stop for water every 10-12 laps, knocking him out of contention. After a caution with 30-35 laps to go, David Pearson was leading and I was second. I hung with David a few laps before he opened a 7-second lead. With 12 laps to go, Petty made his last stop for water and came back on the track directly in front of me. He raised his arm.
That signal told me to hook up (draft) with him. We started gaining, and with three to go I was 2.5 seconds behind Pearson. It looked to me we were going to catch him on the white-flag lap. As I came off the second corner on Lap 198 (of 200) I saw the caution lights blinking and some dust. Pearson's car was going in circles. I was shocked to see the Wood Brothers' #21 car in trouble, for it rarely happened. When I got to the third corner it dawned on me that I was going to win the Daytona 500.
In 1960 I went from near North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, where I was born and raised, to Detroit, where my dad ran a service and repair station. I was there a couple of months when I met two guys my dad knew who had a race car. I started going to the track, into the pits. The only time I’d been to a racetrack was as a spectator. Three years later, in 1963, one of these guys stopped by Dad’s station and asked me if I’d like to drive a race car. I said I thought so. He said he had a car he’d give to me, a Ford. We went to his garage, and the first thought I had when I saw that car was that he had got cheated. It was torn all to pieces. We fixed it, though, and I ran my first race, a figure-eight feature on a 1/4-mile dirt track, and spun out. As a footnote to the Daytona 500 victory, all I could think about afterward was the level I started racing at in that old Ford, and 12 years later I was the Daytona 500 champ. It was a very humbling experience.
In 1968, I was broke. I was trying my best to get some help from Ford Motor Company to run the ARCA circuit. Ford had a party in Dearborn in December that year for its drivers and invited me, complete with my name on a reserved table. I asked myself what this was all about? Somebody said Ford was going to give me some help. That was news to me because I’d been calling the motorsports director and never could get him. Finally, he called in January and asked if I wanted to drive a Holman-Moody Ford in the ARCA race at Daytona. The deal was, I would pick up the car from Holman-Moody and build a qualifying engine. They would furnish a race engine. I was tickled to death. Well, the car was just the body and frame and all the parts to put it together. I had 10 days to get that car ready to go to Daytona. I had never seen one of those cars and knew nothing about preparing it. It seemed physically impossible to get the car ready, but we had to. And I knew why. This was Ford’s test to find out if I really wanted to race. If I called and told Ford I couldn’t get the car ready, I could kiss the company good-bye and my racing career would be over. We took the car to Odie Skeen’s two-car garage. At times there were 14 people working on it. Skeen built the engine. Somehow we got to Daytona and sat on the ARCA pole at 185 mph.
The first couple of years as an ESPN commentator I worked the pits for Busch races and in the booth for Winston Cup events. We were doing the Busch race at Darlington, my fourth or fifth race with ESPN. Timmy Wallace was working with his cousin Kenny Wallace’s team. About the time the race started, the ESPN director said he needed a Track Fact. I didn’t know what to do. Finally, my idea was to feature an innovative tire cart, which crewmen still use to scoop up a set of tires at once. I instructed Timmy on what to do. Just as the camera swung to show the cart, the communications went awry and Wallace pulled the cart out of sight behind a truck. There was nothing to show. I froze, my mouth locked, I couldn’t say a word and have never been so embarrassed in my entire life.
Written on Wind
They say the Lord looks after fools and gamblers. And I guess at the L.A. Times 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway, the Lord looked after this fool. I clearly did not have the best car and it was my final race for owner M.C. Anderson. Right away I had a flat tire and lost more than a lap. The caution came out and I dove into the pits so I could come out near the front. We had a bad pit stop and lost a second lap. Darrell Waltrip was leading and I was behind him, two laps down. After several laps, I got a great run on Waltrip off Turn 4. Just as I got to the start-finish line, I pulled in front of him by two feet and got a lap back. I ran along with the lead pack one down and Waltrip had trouble. Near the end of the race, Cale Yarborough took the lead in Junior Johnson’s car. The caution appeared again. I ran wide open and kept up with Cale but couldn’t gain an inch.
That day the wind was blowing from Turn 2 to Turn 4, with gusts that had to be 50-60 mph. Cale, trying to beat me to the line, turned into Turn 4. A gust of wind caught his car and literally pushed it out of the groove. I turned under his car and got my second lap back. Everybody had to make one more stop with 10-15 laps to go. For some reason the leaders decided to gas and go. In fact, a miscommunication between Dale Earnhardt and his crew over gas and/or tires almost cost him the championship, his first. I took on gas and rightside tires. I caught Neil Bonnett in the Wood Brothers' car and Cale, passed them both in the same corner and won the race by six seconds over Bonnett. There's no way I should have won that race--the last Winston Cupper at the 2.5-mile showplace. It's just as true now as then--when it's your day you're going to win, and it doesn't take the fastest car.
Pause that Refreshed
In 1987 I drove for Hendrick Motorsports while the late Tim Richmond was ill. Harry Hyde was crewchief. We were at Darlington, the late Elmo Langley was driving then and his car dropped gear oil on the track. My car hit the stuff, which is as slippery as ice, and went straight into the wall. It was similar to what happened to Dale Jarrett’s car when he was going for the Winston Million bonus in 1996. Repairs were made, and I came back to log laps for points.
During a caution about halfway, I asked Harry if he wanted me to pit. Not right then, he replied. I drove another lap and asked again. No, not until he and the crew finished their ice-cream cones, he answered. On the pit stop, I got four tires and ice cream. The story was in the movie Days of Thunder.
The details of Richard Petty’s 200th career victory, in the Pepsi Firecracker 400, are well-documented: how they beat and banged on one another racing to the line to take the race-ending caution flag, dropped when Doug Heveron’s car wrecked. It isn’t generally known, however, that I caused the caution, unintentionally of course. With about two to three laps to go, I was fifth battling Bobby Allison for fourth place. We came upon the lapped car of Heveron. I went to the outside and sensed he didn’t know I was there. I bumped him in the rear and his car spun and flipped, triggering the caution. I held on to fifth in Johnny Hayes’ Chevy, behind Allison.
I’ll Never Know
In 1970, at the Raleigh North, Carolina Fairgrounds, the last dirt-track race for what is now Winston Cup cars was run. I started on dirt and ran several races in the Detroit area. The dirt up North is so dry, hard, and slick that it’s almost like racing on asphalt. At Raleigh, I’ll never forget that Ellerbe, North Carolina, won the front row--John Sears on the pole and me on the outside. We lived one block apart in the town of 900. The race started and John blew up. I got the lead, and here came Richard Petty jerking (pitching) his car sideways into a broad slide in the corners and nailing the gas. He passed me easily. This was red clay and stickier than what I was used to, and I was still driving the car like I would on a dirt track in Michigan. I said I’d only heard about pitching a car, but if I was going to keep up with Richard I had to change my style. I made up my mind to drive like Richard. Just as I came off Turn 4 and prepared to pitch the car into Turn 1, the engine blew. So I still don’t know if I could have driven on dirt like Richard Petty, doggone it.