It was consistency, not race wins, that carried Benny Parsons to the 1973 NASCAR Winston Cup Championship. The story of the season’s last race, where Parsons wrapped up his sole NASCAR Cup title, is the stuff of legend, and on January 12, 2019, the 1973 Chevrolet Chevelle Laguna that propelled him to victory will cross the auction stage as part of Mecum’s Kissimmee sale.
Born in Wilkes County, North Carolina, in July 1941, Parsons favored football over other sports through high school. Following graduation, he moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he worked in his dad’s auto repair shop; there, he met a couple customers who raced on local dirt tracks, and Parsons soon began crewing for their team. Three years later, in 1963, one of the racers asked Parsons if he’d like to give the sport a try and presented him with a battered old Ford. In Parson’s first race, a figure-eight on a quarter-mile dirt track, his night ended in a spin. A decade later, he’d be a NASCAR champion.
For much of his career, Parsons played the role of underdog, which made him something of a fan favorite. He received the occasional lucky break along the way, such as a one-race NASCAR Cup series ride in 1964 with Holman-Moody, where he teamed with fellow rookie Cale Yarborough. Parsons started the Western North Carolina 500 in ninth and finished 21st, retiring after 258 laps with an overheating issue. (Yarborough started fifth and ended in 20th, after retiring on lap 268, also with radiator problems.)
With NASCAR’s Cup series beyond his financial means, Parsons focused on the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) series, where he earned Rookie of the Year honors in 1965. Three years later, in 1968, he won the ARCA championship, a feat he repeated in 1969. Perhaps spurred on by this success, Parsons returned to North Carolina in 1969, this time in search of a full-time ride in NASCAR. He drove four Winston Cup events for owner Russ Dawson in 1969, delivering three top-10 finishes, but even this performance wasn’t enough to get him on with a team full-time.
Parsons started the 1970 season at Daytona, driving as a team owner and without sponsorship in a ’69 Ford. He finished seventh in the second qualifier for the Daytona 500, and 14th in the race itself, a remarkable achievement given his shoestring budget. Beginning with the season’s next race, the Richmond 500, Parsons found a home with the DeWitt Racing team, finishing his first full season in the Winston Cup Series eighth in points. In a partial 1971 season with DeWitt Racing, Parsons finished 11th in the championship, but moved up to fifth in 1972, competing in all 31 of the season’s events.
The 1973 season began with Parsons racing a 1972 Chevy Monte Carlo, switching to a Mercury for the fifth race of the season, at Bristol. He’d pilot the Monte Carlo though race 11, debuting a new 1973 Chevrolet Chevelle Laguna for race 12, at Charlotte, but would alternate between the two Chevrolets until race 16, at Michigan. Two races later, at the second Bristol race in the 1973 schedule, the Chevelle delivered Parsons’ sole victory of the season.
Parsons led Richard Petty by 194.35 points going into the final race of the season, the American 500 at Rockingham, North Carolina, but Petty’s pole position – compared to Parson’s fifth-pace qualifying spot – meant he was still in mathematical contention for the championship. Series title aside, the race was an important one for the DeWitt team: Its shop was just a few miles down the road in Ellerbe, North Carolina, and team owner L.G. DeWitt was also the owner of Rockingham Speedway, making this the home race on the home track. No one had more incentive to win – or at least finish well – than Parsons and DeWitt Racing.
On lap 13, the unthinkable happened: Parsons’ #72 Chevelle tangled with the #49 Dodge of G.C. Spencer, who’d spun in front of him. Parsons tried to dive below the Dodge, but ran out of room, and the ensuing contact peeled back the Chevy’s right-side bodywork. From the rear of the fender, across the door and into the quarter-panel, the sheetmetal was gone, as was the right side of the roll cage. Without a wrecker on standby, the team watched the minutes tick by before the wrecked race car was finally towed back to the pits.
Spare parts are one thing, but NASCAR teams don’t keep a supply of steel tubing on hand in case a car needs to be re-caged during a race. Parsons knew the rest of the car could be repaired and returned to the track if some way could be found to fix the cage. Then, Ralph Moody wandered over, and offered to cut up the cage of Bobby Mausgrover’s car, since he’d failed to qualify for the race. Crew members from other teams pitched in, too, perhaps because DeWitt was one of the most respected owners in the sport, and a championship was on the line. It was a David-and-Goliath thing, too, since the title would almost certainly go to Richard Petty unless Parsons could return to the field.
An hour-and-a-quarter later, the repairs were completed to NASCAR’s satisfaction (under the 1973 rules, anyway), and Parsons returned to the track on lap 136. Three laps earlier, Petty had pulled into his pits with a broken camshaft, ending his day and his shot at the 1973 title. Cale Yarborough was still in contention, but Parsons pushed the badly damaged Chevelle as hard as he dared, before a serious vibration ended his day after a total of 308 laps.
The DeWitt team could do little more than watch the laps click by, and when the checkered flag waved, Yarborough finished in third, with Parsons scored in 28th. By 67.15 points over Yarborough – then a razor-thin margin – Benny Parsons had earned the 1973 NASCAR Winston Cup Championship.
Parsons career in the Winston Cup series continued through the 1988 season, and though 1973 was his sole championship, he finished third in points in 1976, 1977 and 1980. Following his retirement from racing, Parsons served as a popular NASCAR analyst and commentator, working with TBS, ABC, ESPN, NBC, and TNT. On January 16, 2007, Parsons succumbed to lung cancer at age 65, and 10 years later was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The award includes a year-long display of a car from an inductee’s past, so to honor his friend and former teammate, Tex Powell began a search for Parson’s championship-winning 1973 Chevelle. Remarkably, he was able to locate the car, and with the help of other DeWitt Racing crew members from the period, kicked off a comprehensive restoration to rebuild it in time for display at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Beneath the hood is a period-correct 427-cu.in. V-8, which Mecum describes as rebuilt by GM’s Research and Development group in Detroit, Michigan, mated to a T10 transmission.
The instruments are period-correct, as is the exhaust system, and Goodyear bias-ply racing tires are mounted on Holman-Moody wheels. The driver’s seat is from the original car and was reportedly reupholstered by the same person who wrapped the seat for the ’73 season. Even the gas cap is authentic, returned to the restoration by the same DeWitt Racing crew member who retained it as a souvenir after the ’73 championship.
Mecum hasn’t yet set a pre-auction estimate for the Chevelle. For more on the Kissimmee, Florida, sale, visit Mecum.com.