CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Benny Parsons had learned that his recent cancer diagnosis was a terminal one, he made a plan for his wife, Terri, to carry out after his death in January 2007. On Wednesday, May 25 — Voting Day for the NASCAR Hall of Fame — Terri Parsons checked the last box on that 10-item list.
“I know when Benny knew that he wasn’t going to make it, his biggest fear was he was going to be forgotten. And I think this cements that,” Terri Parsons said. “He will never be forgotten now, and I think his final wish … he gave me a list of 10 things to do, and as of today, all 10 are done.”
Benjamin Stewart Parsons will forever be remembered as a NASCAR champion, a Daytona 500 winner and a blue-collar competitor behind the wheel. But he’ll also be known as a brilliant, engaging commentator for stock-car racing from the TV booth. After Wednesday, if either of those memories were ever to fade, he’ll now be forever known as a NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee.
Mostly, Parsons will also be known simply as Benny, an everyman ambassador for the sport known as much for his driving and broadcasting skills as for his ability to bond with fans in the stands. That enduring popularity is what produced a groundswell of fan support on social media and an overwhelming show of approval by the 54-member voting panel, which named him on 85 percent of its ballots, leading all 20 Hall of Fame nominees.
“It always meant a lot to Benny what people thought of him because Benny loved everybody,” said Phil Parsons, Benny’s younger brother and himself a longtime TV broadcaster. “From the fans to the competitors to the owners, sponsors, NASCAR, ARCA, whoever it might’ve been, they always meant a lot to him. So it was important that people liked him because he genuinely liked everybody in return. And I think he would be very pleased today knowing that this honor was bestowed upon him.”
Fellow Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett, whose bond with Parsons dates back to his earliest experience in NASCAR, shared the sentiment. Parsons made his first start in NASCAR’s top divison in August 1964 at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway in western North Carolina. Jarrett won that Sunday in dominating fashion, but took time out of the race weekend to welcome the newcomer.
That first chance meeting forged a friendship that extended beyond their driving careers and into television, where the two often shared a role as color commentator.
“To have worked with him for so long on television and to see his dedication to the sport and the love for the fans, and the reaction of the fans over the years — he was a people person,” Jarrett said. “People could relate to him because he was one of them, just a down-to-earth type of individual who wanted the best for them, and they sensed that. With all of that, we became great friends.”
Jarrett said he had a strong gut feeling about Parsons on Wednesday, pointing also to the support he received in the voting room. Terri Parsons had a similar feeling, one that was somehow different than the previous seven votes — all of which she faithfully attended.
Maybe it was the overwhelming response she said she received from her persistent campaigning for her husband, reminding people every day to participate in fan balloting. Maybe it was her welcome upon her arrival at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Wednesday afternoon. “There was a man waiting for me at the parking place that said, ‘Are you Mrs. Parsons? Hurry, hurry,’ ” she said with a laugh. “I felt a little different about that. They didn’t care last year if I had a parking place or not.”
Benny Parsons now has a permanent place, one that will become official with his enshrinement in January 2017, close to the 10-year mark since his passing at age 65.
“Somewhere tonight he’s saying ‘fantastic,’ I’m sure, and we all know the smile that he’d have on his face, and there’s certainly one on mine because I’ve been here for nine years waiting for this,” Terri Parsons said, noting the time it’s taken to cross the last item from her list. “All I can say is thank you, thank you, thank you.”