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Benny Parsons, 65; former NASCAR champion, popular racing broadcaster

Times Staff Writer

Benny Parsons, a former NASCAR champion and Daytona 500 winner who gained an even wider following as a cheerful stock car racing broadcaster, died Tuesday of complications from lung cancer. He was 65.

Parsons, a onetime taxi driver who won his series title in 1973, died in Charlotte, N.C., where he had been hospitalized since last month.

An ex-smoker who quit the habit nearly 30 years ago, Parsons was diagnosed with cancer in his left lung last July. He underwent intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments and appeared to be recovering, but relapsed.

“Benny Parsons was a true champion -- both on the racetrack and in life,” NASCAR Chairman Brian France said. “Benny loved our sport and the people that make it up and those people loved him.”

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Parsons, known as BP throughout NASCAR, won 21 races in 526 starts from 1964 to 1988.

His victories included the 1975 Daytona 500, the sport’s premier event, and wins at two now-defunct Southern California tracks: Riverside International Raceway in 1978 and back-to-back victories at Ontario Motor Speedway in 1979 and 1980.

Parsons also was the first stock car driver to top the 200-mph mark in qualifying when he posted a lap at 200.176 mph for the 1982 Winston 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1994. In 1998, he was named one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers.

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After retiring, he joined ESPN as a race analyst and then moved to NBC and TNT when those networks began NASCAR coverage in 2001.

Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports, said Parsons “was a great driver and a terrific broadcaster, but above anything else he was a kind and generous human being. Benny will be sorely missed.”

Parsons maintained a folksy, plain-spoken demeanor in the booth that was punctuated by genuine excitement at key moments in races. His friendly, unassuming manner and frequent smile made him a popular figure as NASCAR surged in popularity over the last decade.

“Benny Parsons was the kindest, sweetest, most considerate person I have ever known,” said Darrell Waltrip, himself a three-time series champion who also does TV commentary for stock car racing.

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Doug Yates, co-owner of Robert Yates Racing, said crew members looked forward to Parsons’ pre-race strolls through the garage, where he would gather tidbits and swap stories.

“You’d see him coming and right away the whole mood would pick up,” Yates said.

Parsons was born July 12, 1941, in rural Wilkes County, N.C., and later spent time in Detroit, where he worked at a cab company owned by his father. Early in his racing career, he would sometimes list “taxicab driver” as his occupation on entry forms.

He drove his first race in NASCAR’s top-level Grand National series -- now called the Nextel Cup series -- in 1964, but didn’t land a full-time ride until 1970.

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Parsons won the championship in 1973 against tough odds. Although he had limited funds and drove a non-sponsored Chevrolet, he was locked in a close points race with Cale Yarborough. But in the season’s final race in Rockingham, N.C., Parsons crashed early and his title hopes appeared dashed.

Instead, members of several rival teams scurried to find replacement parts, helped put the car back together and got Parsons back on the track in time for him to earn enough points to win the championship.

“What they did was a real miracle,” he later recalled.

Parsons is survived by his second wife, Terri; sons Kevin and Keith; and two granddaughters. Parsons’ first wife, Connie, died in 1991.

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james.peltz@latimes.com


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