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B.P.: Remembering a Rockingham boy
He wasn't referring to the silver and black team in Oakland, but rather the green and gold of the Richmond County High School Raiders, the pride of Rockingham, N.C. I was born in Rockingham, and B.P. had established his legend there, the greatest hometown sports hero in The Rock's two-century history. It was the same way he would greet me for the next 13 years.
"Ryan, I wanted to see if you needed me to call anybody for you."
I had never met Benny Parsons aside from standing in line to get his autograph, but that didn't matter. A friend of a friend of a cousin, or something like that, had told him of my new employment, and the network's top NASCAR analyst wanted to see if he could help out "a fellow Rockingham boy."
On October 21, 1973, I was two weeks shy of my third birthday and my brother was 12 days old. B.P. was 32, and racing at The Rock to protect a shrinking points lead and fight for a piece of NASCAR immortality... all about 15 minutes from my house. The entire city of Rockingham was abuzz about Benny's improbable title run. Somehow, someway, he had managed to hold off the juggernaut Detroit-backed teams of Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty all year long until this, the final race of the season.
Benny was born in the North Carolina mountains, did some time in Detroit and then moved just north of Rockingham to the town of Ellerbe to drive for car owner L.G. DeWitt, a local businessman who also just happened to own the Rockingham racetrack. His crew chief was another local boy, Travis Carter, and the team was basically a bunch of young guys from in and around the northeastern corner of the sandy county wedged between Pinehurst and the Atlantic.
Now, here they were, the hometown team on the hometown track in front of the hometown fans with a chance to engrave their names on the Winston Cup trophy. Then, disaster struck on lap 13 when Parsons' orange No. 72 Chevy was caught up in a wreck. Actually, it was more of a demolition. Before the green flag had barely been racked, the highly-partial crowd of 48,000 rose to see what had happened. They were punched in the gut by the realization that the car's entire right side had been sheared away, exposing the roll cage, the suspension, and the heartbroken racer inside.
The car was rolled into the garage and left to rot, to wither away in unison with the Ellerbe Gang's title hopes. Then, a rival crewmember brought over a welding torch... and another dragged over a swatch of sheet metal. For the next 197 laps, an assembly of mechanics from every corner of pit road worked on Benny's mangled ride, sculpting just enough of a body that NASCAR officials allowed him back onto the track to turn laps.
As B.P. and L.G. lumbered back into the fight, the once-crushed crowd was back on its feet. "We were barely getting around there," Parsons told me several times, "but it was enough to do what we needed to do." Which was finish 28th and win the Winston Cup title by a scant margin over the on-rushing Yarborough.
"It was so important to Mr. DeWitt to have a team in NASCAR that represented Richmond County and the Sandhills of North Carolina," Benny said. "One of the great disappointments of my career was that we never won a race at Rockingham because he wanted that so bad. But winning the championship there was about as great a gift as we could have given to that area that he and I loved so much."
Parsons drove for DeWitt for five more years, but even after leaving the team, he maintained a residence in Ellerbe. Like everyone else, he ate at the Ellerbe Springs Hotel, had breakfast at the Dixie Burger and talked Raider football. The little town on the side of U.S. 220 kept Benny grounded, even after 21 race wins, $4.5 million won on the track and an Emmy won in the broadcast booth.
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"My sons were born there, and they went to school there," B.P. said to me one night after we'd just wrapped up a Daytona 500 preview show. "Even after I moved to Charlotte, I tried to never lose touch with Richmond County. They supported my career long before anyone knew anything about me."
That support never stopped. My grandfather, Marshall Caddell, was never a big NASCAR fan, and to the best of my knowledge, he never met Benny Parsons. He was, however, a proud resident of Richmond County. So when he passed away in 1998, and we were going through his stuff in the tool shed behind the house, it wasn't a surprise when we found a tattered poster tacked to the wall reading "Champion Spark Plugs Congratulates Benny Parsons, 1976 Mason-Dixon 500 Winner."
It is the reason people loved Benny so much. He moved away, he moved up the ladder, but he never left. He brought the sport to the masses and made sure it never left them behind. He was a hard worker, a blue-collar hero, a people's champion. To the people of Richmond County... to us... he will always be our champion.
A fellow Rockingham boy.
Ryan McGee is the managing editor at NASCAR Images. He can be reached at his e-mail address: email@example.com.