Paying homage to Parsons

All other racing topics this week take a back seat to news of the death of NASCAR champion and popular broadcaster Benny Parsons, from complications of lung cancer.

Coming so soon after Bobby Hamilton succumbed to a year-long battle with cancer, Parson's passing is doubly painful.

Parsons was not only a NASCAR champion and a knowledgeable and entertaining commentator, but was one of the truly nice guys in the sport. There are literally hundreds of stories out there about people he has helped in the sport, from owners like Jack Roush to drivers like Mark Martin and Greg Biffle to fellow broadcasters like Ray Dunlap, who got his big break on a recommendation from Benny.

I recall one close encounter with BP, as he was affectionately known, several years ago at Sears Point Raceway (before it became Infineon). It was during one of the early Cup races at the track, and Benny was with the TV coverage team for ESPN.

I was doing PA announcing for some of the support races, and crossed paths with Benny in the press building. That year ESPN had decided to have Parsons and colleague Ned Jarrett do their commentary from remote turns at the road course races while Bob Jenkins anchored the broadcast from the booth.

Benny was NOT happy about the situation, and was not shy about letting folks know it. Having announced from the turns myself for many years, I thought about giving him some pointers, but decided it was probably best to leave well enough alone. I had run into him in passing in previous years, and this was the only time I saw him without a smile on his face.

Those were the years when he was known as "Buffet Benny," and there was a segment every race where he sampled food on the air, whether from the track snack shack or a fan's tailgate party. I recall that one year a group of us tried to set up a real buffet at Sears Point, with the idea of selling tickets to eat with Benny to raise money for a local charity. Unfortunately, we couldn't get the logistics together to make it happen, but I'm sure Benny would have gone along with it if we had.

Last season we watched Parsons' gallant struggle with lung cancer as he missed a few races and delivered his race analysis in a hoarse voice on several occasions. His insightful commentary, gentle wit, infectious smile, and friendly "Hey, how ya doin'?" will be greatly missed. Godspeed, Benny.

Closer to home, Sierra Sierra Enterprises of Minden recently announced that it has signed Canadian driver James Hinchliffe to join Brazilian Raphael Matos for the 2007 season in the Champ Car Atlantic series. With Hinchcliffe, who finished 10th in the Atlantic title chase last season, and former Formula Mazda champion Matos, Sierra Sierra will be a force in the newly-revamped series. Sierra Sierra will debut its two-car team in the streets of downtown Las Vegas in April in support of the Champ Car World Series season opener.

Speaking of Champ Car, the series has recently been expanded to 17 races for 2007 with the addition of two European rounds. The Champ Car guys (and gal, if Katherine Legge secures a ride) will compete at Assen in the Netherlands on September 2 and at the former Belgian Formula 1 venue of Zolder a week later.

The series has not raced in Europe since the 2003 season, when Alex Zanardi made his emotional comeback at Germany's Lausitzring after losing both legs the previous year in a horrendous accident at that same track. Both the Assen and Zolder tracks have undergone major safety modifications in 2006, which was one reason they were selected as Champ Car venues for the upcoming season.

The addition of the European rounds makes Champ Car a truly international series. In addition to nine races in the United States, there will be an event in China, the traditional Surfers Paradise race in Australia, three Canadian contests, and the Mexico City round. The season runs from the April 8 opener in Las Vegas through the season finale in Phoenix on December 2.

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