By Bobby Markos
Some people enter the world of motorsports from an early age and never leave it. That can be said for racing analyst Phil Parsons, whose earliest memories in life were of his older brother Benny starting his racing career in Eastern Michigan. Auto racing was something of a family affair for the Parsons. Harold, the Parsons patriarch, first became aware of the sport when the unit was living in Wilkes County, North Carolina, and took in races at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Upon moving to the Detroit area in search of work and a better life, he began to frequent a number of short track strongholds that were now at his fingertips, like Flat Rock, Mount Clemens, Toledo and Auto City. The family’s taxi cab depot and filling station became a stop for the area’s racing personnel, and in the early 1960s they began inviting Benny into the pits to help out and soon offered to sell him his own car. As Benny was fixing up the car and strapping in to enter the Eastern Michigan Figure-8 ranks, younger brother Phil became inspired at the age of five to become a racer himself, an ambition he would chase for decades to come.
On this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download, Dale Jr. and co-host Mike Davis welcome Phil Parsons into the Bojangles Studio to discuss his upbringing in the footsteps of his legendary older brother, the start of his own racing career and his prolific time spent in the commentator’s booth. Parsons describes his early years, watching Benny weld a roll cage into his first race car, working at his father’s filling station and attending races in the area. He told a story of Benny getting a chance to test a Ford late model at Asheville Weaverville Speedway in 1964 as part of a prospect scout. He and a young Cale Yarborough would enter a race and whoever finished better would get the chance to run for a factory-backed team. Yarborough had been racing for many years at that point, compared to Benny’s then two seasons behind the wheel, and would end up winning the opportunity.
These early observations made quite an impression on young Phil, and he knew he wanted to follow his brother’s footsteps into the stock car racing ranks. In 1975, he bought his first race chariot, a Vega he found for sale in near-by Pontiac, and took it down to legendary car builder Tex Powell to help get it race ready. Since Powell’s shop was located in Asheboro, Phil made his first laps at Caraway Speedway in Sophia. After a couple years of preparation and testing, Phil attempted to make his debut in the NASCAR Baby Grand division (eventually known as the Dash Series) at Caraway, but was kept from competing when several rule infractions were found on the race car. Phil and Tex fixed the problems, and at long last made his actual debut in November of 1977 at North Wilkesboro, coming home in 16th place.
The following year would bring about a major breakthrough, Phil’s first victory behind the wheel. In just his sixth start, he brought home first place honors at Hickory Motor Speedway, the North Carolina stronghold known for launching many careers of NASCAR pioneers. He followed up the feat with victories at Caraway, North Wilkesboro as well as another at Hickory. In 1979, during a Dash/Cup doubleheader event at the Nashville Fairgrounds, Phil made his mark on the stock car racing scene by scoring a first place finish over all-time winningest Dash driver Dean Combs. Phil made the decision to forego finishing his business management degree in college and moved down south to work out of MC Anderson’s garage and pursue late model sportsman racing. The deal with Anderson only lasted one season, but helped establish the roots for a climb up the stock car ranks.
After a few starts and flashes of promise, Phil found himself broke in 1981. He made a call to Humpy Wheeler in an attempt to solicit sponsorship to get his racing campaign back on track. Through Wheeler, he ended up getting connected with Johnny Hayes Racing. There were talks of the NASCAR Late Model Sportsman division being organized into a touring schedule, and the Busch Grand National Series would be launched in 1982. Phil was tabbed to chauffeur the Hayes Racing entry, a No. 28 Pontiac. In the third event of the inaugural season, Phil had one of his career defining moments: he out raced stock car colossus David Pearson at Bristol Motor Speedway for his first sportsman victory. Phil recalls being in shock over the ordeal, as Pearson was a hero of his growing up.
During this time, Phil made his connection with the US Tobacco Company, a partnership that would aid his graduation into NASCAR’s highest level of competition. This transition would begin in the 1983 season, when Hayes and US Tobacco put together a program for Phil to make five starts in the Cup Series throughout the year driving a Skoal sponsored No. 66. The program would also bring about the opportunity to run as his brother Benny’s teammate, who would be competing in a No. 55 team car for Hayes. In his second attempt during the Winston 500 at Talladega, Phil made contact with Darrell Waltrip that caused him to crash into the outside retaining wall and then flip wildly, coming to rest in a heap in the infield. Phil explained that the wreck took long enough that he had time to think, “this is going to hurt”, and that the landings from each flip is what was painful. The impact from the crash broke his shoulder, and as a result he needed six weeks of physical therapy before returning to action.
This setback was not a deterrent, and in 1984 Phil and Hayes set out to compete for Rookie of the Year honors against a stacked contingent including eventual winner Rusty Wallace, modified standouts Doug Heveron and Greg Sacks and his former Dash-rival Dean Combs. His results were solid, finishing in the top 20 15 times out of 23 attempts, including three top-10s. The following year, Hayes was bought out by Leo and Richard Jackson and their Jackson Bros. Motorsports team. Phil continued to compete part time for the Jacksons while filling in his off weekends racing for Roger Hamby. For the 1987 NASCAR calendar, Benny got the call to fill-in for Tim Richmond at Hendricks Motorsports, allowing Phil to race fulltime in the No. 55. The consistency proved to be key and Phil had his best season attempt to date, coming home 14th in the points standings.
1988 would bring about Phil’s greatest career highlight, his first and only NASCAR Cup victory. The accomplishment came in the running of the Winston 500, the same race he had his horrific crash in just five years earlier. After choosing to stay out during an early caution and pitting under green, Phil was able to stay on the lead lap, avoiding being lapped by leader Ken Schrader until Schrader lost control and spun, causing a caution. This allowed the field to reset, and Phil easily drove through to the top, going on to lead 52 laps and scoring the victory over NASCAR Hall of Famer and plate track specialist Bobby Allison. At the end of the season, Phil was ranked ninth in the points standings, his career best season campaign. But in just one year, he went from the highest highs to the lowest lows, as he was released from the Jackson Brothers ride due to a retrogressing performance in 1989.
Phil would have cataract surgery after the 1989 season, and while the surgery was successful, Phil’s transparency and disclosure to the public about the procedure led to rumors that he had eye problems that may affect his driving ability. For the 1990 year, he signed on with Morgan McClure Motorsports to wheel the No. 4 Kodak Oldsmobile. But, after three lackluster results in the first three events, he was released in favor of Ernie Irvan. Phil suspects that his recent surgery may have been a contributing factor, and notes that his Cup racing career was essentially over. He made sporadic starts over the next couple years before striking a deal with Larry Hedrick Motorsports in 1993. With a cloud of uncertainty hanging over his future in the Cup garage, Phil made the decision to return to the Busch Grand National ranks in 1995 on a fulltime basis.
He would eventually start up his own racing operation again, and had great seasons in 1997 and '98, coming home 6th in the points for consecutive years. Unfortunately, the following year saw his consistency fall off, and 2000 brought about his final full-time racing push. Phil would make his final racing start in 2001 at Kentucky Speedway driving for the Curb Agajanian Performance Group, coming home 34th after a lap-142 crash. After reassessing, he once again decided to follow in his brother Benny’s footsteps, this time into the broadcasting booth. ESPN had reached out to Phil about doing commentary for the NASCAR Truck Series, a role he continues to fill to this day. The Parsons family’s presence on the track continues to be felt through Phil’s son Stefan, who is currently forging his own path in the NASCAR Xfinity division. Through their countless contributions and years of dedication, the Parsons family will forever be synonymous with auto racing.