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From Detroit taxi driver to NASCAR champion: The unlikely story of Benny Parsons

If you live anywhere near Brooklyn, Michigan, you're probably seeing a lot more RV traffic.

It's race weekend at the Michigan International Speedway and NASCAR's top drivers will be in town racing for the Firekeepers Casino 400.

In honor of the big race, we take the time to tell the story of one of the sport's all-time great drivers and personalities: Benny Parsons.

In an unlikely underdog story, Parsons went from a Detroit taxi driver to a NASCAR champion before lung cancer claimed his life in 2007.

Michigan native and long-time NASCAR reporter Matt Yocum, who will be covering the Firekeepers Casino 400 this weekend for Fox Sports, joined Stateside to tell the story of a man simply known as Benny. 

Where Parsons grew up, in North Carolina, auto racing is king. When he moved to Detroit after high school, he was a taxi driver for his dad's business, the Metropolitan Cab Company (which still exists today) and in a scene right out of a movie, got his break in auto racing.

While working at a local gas station, a tow truck hauling a race car, came in to fill up. One thing led to another and the driver of the truck invited Parsons to come to a local short track to take in a race. As the story goes, the regular driver didn't show up and Parsons was thrown into the drivers seat for the race. 

A few years later, at the age of 22, he broke into NASCAR and began a career that would include 21 wins, highlighted by a dramatic win at the 1975 Daytona 500. While the Daytona 500 is considered the pinnacle race of the sport, the way that he won the 1973 NASCAR championship (then known as the Winston Cup) may have been the best example of how much he was loved and respected by his peers.

On the final race of the season in Rockingham, North Carolina -- just miles away from his home -- Parsons just needed to complete a little over 300 laps in the race to earn enough points to win the title.

That title was in jeopardy when he crashed early in the race.

In a series of events that the sport will likely never see again, rival pit crews and teams rallied together to fix Parsons' car by stripping parts from another team's car, to get him back on the track so he could win the championship. 

In 1988, Benny Parsons told the story of his dramatic championship win in the final race of 1973. See below:

According to Yocum, Parsons was one of the most beloved personalities in the sport and that translated well after his retirement in 1988 as he made the smooth transition into the broadcast booth where he was an award-winning commentator for multiple networks.

"He helped change television," said Yocum. "When Benny came in, he had [a] little bit of a southern drawl and he had his personality. Whether it was his shtick of 'Buffet Benny' talking about the different restaurants in the area ... but his personality really warmed up the TV audience."

Listen to the full interview with Matt Yocum to hear about Parsons' life on and off the track and the story of the final race of the 1973 season that earned him the NASCAR championship.

Here's a tribute to Benny Parsons by TNT:

GUEST Matt Yocum, Michigan native and long-time NASCAR reporter

Josh Hakala, a lifelong Michigander (East Lansing & Edwardsburg), comes to Michigan Radio after nearly two decades of working in a variety of fields within broadcasting and digital media.
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