WAID’S WORLD: In 1975, NASCAR’s “Mr. Nice Guy” Earned The Biggest Win Of His Career
Leo Durocher, the legendary Major League Baseball manager, was known not only for his leadership skills but also for his stinging wit.
He’s credited with the now-immortal adage, “Nice guys finish last.” His meaning was that to win, in baseball or any other sport, a competitor had to be a hard-assed individual obsessed with success and with no care or concern for others.
That is not necessarily true.
Durocher never knew Benny Parsons.
Parsons was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame this year and I daresay it was because of the person he was as much as his on-track achievements.
By the time I came to know him in the early 1970’s Parsons had already earned the nickname “Mr. Nice Guy.” It was appropriate because there was no other friendlier, accommodating or personable competitor in the garage area.
Parsons had the gift of gab and a way of establishing himself as a friend and even confidant. Once he learned your name he never forgot it. It didn’t matter who you were.
After my first meeting and interview with him he always called me by name. “Hey, Steve, how are you today?”
Parsons was a native of Wilkes County, N.C. The story goes that his family immigrated to Detroit, where it took up a cab and auto mechanic business.
As his NASCAR career gained momentum Parsons was often called “The cab driver from Detroit.”
“Truth was I drove a cab only rarely,” Parsons said. “I spent most of my time working on ‘em.”
And most of the time he wasn’t even in Detroit. He remained in Wilkes County under the care of his grandmother.
“When we made the move seems my grandmother could not clearly fathom what was going on,” Parsons said. “She asked, ‘Where’s the baby?’ That was me. So … I stayed.”
Parsons knocked around racing’s minor leagues – where he proved to be an able competitor – before he got the opportunity to compete on NASCAR’s Winston Cup circuit with team owner L.G. DeWitt in 1970.
DeWitt was a businessman from Ellerbe, N.C., who was a major owner in what was then North Carolina Motor Speedway, for years known simply as Rockingham.
Parsons became a citizen of Ellerbe and evolved into perhaps the most noteworthy resident of the town. It wasn’t so much that he was a NASCAR driver. It was that he became a good neighbor who didn’t hesitate to become an active participant in its social and political activities – the PTA, for example.
The Parsons tale told most often in NASCAR lore is how he won the 1973 Winston Cup championship. Ironically the 28th, and final, race of the season was at Rockingham. Parsons held a 194.35-point lead over Richard Petty.
But on the 13th lap Parsons’ unsponsored car was torn to pieces in a wreck. The entire right side was ripped away. Pieces had flown everywhere.
Seems nearly everyone in the garage area wanted help the underdog. Members of other teams gathered parts and pieces from cars that did not make the field.
They swarmed like bees around Parsons’ car, working quickly and intensely. Parsons re-entered the race 136 laps after the incident occurred. He finished 28th and won the title by 67.15 points over Cale Yarborough.
As ingrained as that tale is, there is another. The difference is that it has not been told as often.
With the Daytona 500 looming, it seems an appropriate time to re-tell the story.
As preparations and practice for the 1975 Daytona 500 proceeded, the word leaked that Parsons had one of the fastest cars in the field.
At the end of each practice session Parsons’ grin grew wider. The media picked up on the generated buzz. So did the competitors.
“Is this your year Ben?” asked Richard Petty.
Parsons slashed his way through the 500 field and with 10 laps remaining he found himself in second place, 5.2 seconds behind David Pearson.
Petty, eight laps in arrears due to several unscheduled pit stops, pulled alongside Parsons and made hand signals. He wanted Parsons to draft off him.
With two laps to go Parsons was only a couple seconds behind Pearson, who came up on the cars of Yarborough and Richie Panch. As he attempted to get around them he made contact with Yarborough’s car and was sent into a spin.
The path was clear for Parsons, who won the first superspeedway race, and the only Daytona 500, of his career.
“Richard could have left me behind but he waved for me to join him as he went by,” Parsons said.
“If you are going to do something like that, I can’t imagine doing it for a better person than Benny,” Petty said.
Parsons won 21 races in his career and afterward became a very popular television broadcaster whose effusive personality came forward in every show he did.
He never lost the nickname “Mr. Nice Guy.”
I daresay that even today all you have to do is say the name. Chances are nearly everyone will know he’s Benny Parsons.
EMAIL STEVE AT firstname.lastname@example.org
FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid
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