ANYONE WHO'S ever ridden in a big-city taxi has probably, at some point, joked that their cabbie might want to think about getting a job as a race car driver. Benny Parsons, who died last week of lung cancer at age 65, proved that such a career change was possible. Parsons got his start in racing in the early 1960s, when he was working for his father's taxi company in Detroit. ("I'm the ex--Detroit cab driver and always will be," he joked last year.) He raced at local tracks in Michigan before moving up to the ARCA series in 1965. After winning consecutive championships there, he made the jump to the big time, joining NASCAR full time in 1970.
Parsons was the Winston Cup (now Nextel Cup) champion in 1973, and in '82 he became the first driver to break the 200-mph barrier in qualifying, at Talladega. In his 21-year career he won 21 races, including the 1975 Daytona 500. His contemporaries swore—only half-jokingly—that he could have won plenty more, but he was too friendly to engage in the bumping and paint swapping that his job sometimes required.
In 2006 Darrell Waltrip—who, like Parsons, went on to a successful career as a broadcaster after retiring—told the Nashville Tennessean, "Benny is such a great role model. He's such a sweet and patient man. I don't think I've ever seen Benny Parsons mad about anything."
REED SAXON/AP (PARSONS)
THE CHAMP Parsons (at Ontario Motor Speedway in '80) hoisted the race winner's trophy 21 times.