Originally created 12/21/06

Ex-driver has much to be thankful for



Author Allen Carr and former racing champion Benny Parsons both quit smoking more than 23 years ago; both were diagnosed with lung cancer during the same week last July.

Parsons thinks about that connection all the time. He knows Carr was credited for helping a lot of superstars kick their smoking habit with books like The Easy Way to Stop Smoking; The Only Way to Stop Smoking; and Easy Way for Women to Stop Smoking.

"I read where people like Johnny Cash stopped smoking because of him," Parsons said. "Then he got cancer. I was diagnosed in July; he was diagnosed in July. It's amazing how things work."

Carr died three weeks ago. Parsons now is cancer-free.

"That could have been me," he said. "If not for the grace of God, that could have been me."

Early detection

One of the most popular figures in stock car history will celebrate Christmas attached to an oxygen machine, but it's a lot better than a tumor. Doctors attacked the single-cell cancer in his left lung aggressively, giving him massive doses of radiation and chemotherapy to keep the disease contained in the lung. Unlike most lung cancer victims, Parsons' disease was diagnosed early before it had a chance to spread to other organs.

"I had two things working in my favor: A, it was only in the lung; B, I was in good health," Parsons said. "I know you wouldn't believe it, but I was in pretty good shape. I was working out three days a week at the (YMCA). I was in good shape for a 65-year-old man."

Parsons got a second scan a couple weeks ago and it confirmed the first; the cancer is gone, but at a price. The treatment caused severe damage to the lung.

"I may end up being a one-lunger," he said. "It's going to be another six months before they know for sure. The best we can hope for is for it to be back at 25-30 percent. It will never be 100 percent. They had to get the tumor out of there.

"If they said I could beat it but I was going to lose the lung, I would have taken that deal. It's better than the cancer. It would have been 100 percent. It kills."

One of their own

The sport wrapped its arms around the former Detroit cab driver, much like it did in 1973 when he won what's now known as the Nextel Cup Series championship. The series winner back then was the driver who completed the most laps during the season. Parsons crashed early in the season-finale at Rockingham, N.C., and crewmen from competing teams went to the garage to help make repairs. His championship proved to be a collective effort.

Just like his cancer.

Car owner Rick Hendrick, a leukemia survivor, put Parsons in touch with some of the best doctors in the country. Teams made their private jets available to the driver-turned-television commentator.

"I never thought about the connection," Parsons said of the parallels between the championship and his battle with cancer. "But there is a lot of similarity there. The reception I got last year was unbelievable. When I showed up for the last race with oxygen, I couldn't believe the support I got, the passion they had for me. I can't tell you what that meant to me."

Fighting the fight

Parsons was in good hands from the start. Not only were fans, friends and fellow racers rushing to his side, the medical community made him a priority as well. Their aggressive approach turned a possible death sentence into a second lease on life.

"I was diagnosed on a Thursday and I met with the doctors on the next Monday," he said. "They were convinced we were going to beat it. All I had to do was fight the fight and put it in God's hands. I was never scared."

During the fight, Parsons continued to work for NBC and TNT, as well as his Monday night radio show on the Performance Racing Network. He missed four races on television and only one week on the radio. He also continued to make his dream a reality near his home in North Carolina. The first batch of Benny Parsons Rendezvous Ridge wine is in the barrels.

He has also signed a new deal to stay with TNT for its coverage of the Nextel Cup Series next year.

"This is going to be a good Christmas," he said. "It's definitely going to be special."

Reach Don Coble at don.coble@morris.com.