Benny Parsons, a former taxi driver turned NASCAR champion, died Tuesday from complications stemming from his short battle with lung cancer, his son Keith said. He was 65.
Parsons, the 1973 NASCAR champion, died in Charlotte, N.C., where he had been hospitalized since Dec. 26.
A member of NASCAR's 50 greatest drivers, Parsons retired from racing in 1988 and moved into the broadcasting booth. He spent the past six years as a commentator on NBC and TNT, and continued to call races from the booth during his treatment.
"Benny was a beloved and widely respected member of the NASCAR community, and of the NBC Sports family," said Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports.
"He was a great driver and a terrific broadcaster, but above anything else he was a kind and generous human being. His character and spirit will define how he is remembered by all of us. Benny will be sorely missed."
Parsons was diagnosed with cancer in his left lung in July after complaining of difficulty breathing. A former smoker who quit the habit in 1978, Parsons underwent intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments and was declared "cancer-free" in October.
But the aggressive treatment cost Parsons the use of his left lung, and he was hospitalized Dec. 26 when doctors found a blood clot in his right lung. He was transferred to intensive care shortly after his admission, and he remained there in an induced-coma.
Parsons, affectionately known throughout NASCAR as "BP," also continued to host a weekly radio program and kept fans updated on his condition in a blog on his web site.
"As my radiation oncologist told me today, John Wayne lived and had a great career with one lung. There is no reason why I can't do the same." Parsons posted in a Dec. 18th entry after learning of the damage to his left lung.
"It will take a little while for the right lung to pull the weight for the left lung so until then I will still need to use oxygen when I walk. I won't need it sitting or commentating races and to me that is the main thing.
"If given a choice between cancer or losing a lung I would say that I got the right end of the deal."
That feisty spirit was one of Parsons' trademarks, and what helped him rise up from a poor childhood in the foothills of North Carolina to a job driving taxis and then all the way to the top of NASCAR.
He remained popular both with the fans and the current NASCAR community, which had rallied in support of Parsons during his battle. Michael Waltrip came to preseason testing at Daytona International Speedway this week with "We Love You BP" painted on the side of his car.
And Parsons was always on the lookout for new talent, and proved to have a keen eye for it when he discovered Greg Biffle and pushed car owner Jack Roush to hire him sight unseen. Biffle went on to win championships in NASCAR's Truck and Busch Series and is now a top-level Nextel Cup driver.
"It's obvious he's the only reason why I am here in this sport; I would still be in Washington racing local stuff if not for BP," Biffle said. "It seems like this cancer thing ... it's just evil stuff. He told me upfront that it was pretty aggressive cancer, but they caught it real quick and that they were on top of it."
Parsons' death comes eight days after former Truck Series champion Bobby Hamilton lost his battle with cancer.
Parsons was born July 12, 1941 at his parents' rural home in Wilkes County and eventually moved to Detroit, where he worked at a gas station and a cab company owned by his father. After winning back-to-back ARCA titles in 1968-69, he returned to North Carolina in Ellerbe to become a full-time racer, often listing "taxicab driver" as his occupation on entry forms.
Parsons made 526 starts from 1964 until his 1988 retirement. He won 21 races, including the 1975 Daytona 500, and 20 poles. He was also the first Cup competitor to qualify for a race faster than 200 mph when he posted a lap at 200.176 mph at the 1982 Winston 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
Parsons ended his career with 283 top-10 finishes, led at least one lap in 192 races and finished no lower than fifth in the points from 1972 to 1980 while earning more than $4 million. He also won back-to-back ARCA titles in 1968-69 when he lived in Detroit, before getting his shot at NASCAR.
His 1973 championship season was built on endurance and consistency: He won only one of the 28 races that season, while second-place finisher Cale Yarborough won four times and David Pearson won 11. But Parsons finished the most miles that year to claim the crown.
He was named one of NASCAR's 50 greatest drivers in 1998, and was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1994. He was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association's Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame in 1995.
Parsons began his broadcasting career in the 1980s as a pit reporter for ESPN and TBS, when he was still racing a partial schedule. He moved into the booth for good in 1989 for ESPN and won a Cable ACE Award for best sports analyst.
Survivors include his wife, Terri, and two sons by his late wife — Kevin and Keith, a former sports writer for The Associated Press, and two granddaughters.