Drivers who raced what you wouldn’t expect them to…
BMW 3.0CSL, Daytona 24 Hours, 1976. By Gary Watkins
There’s nothing new under the sun, so they say. This year NASCAR stars Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte and Rusty Wallace all turned out in the Daytona 24 Hours driving the dumpy Grand-Am prototypes that you’ll never see outside North America; 30 years ago it was Bobby Allison, Hershel McGriff and David Pearson pedalling modified Grand National cars in the US enduro. But there was another superstar from the world of stock cars on the grid back in 1976, and he was driving a piece of European exotica!
Benny Parsons racing a BMW — a works-blessed 3.0CSL no less — sounds as incongruous as it gets. The Detroit-born ‘racing taxi driver’, as he had been erroneously dubbed years before, had zero experience in sportscars. And his roadracing exploits were limited to Riverside, the only road course on the Grand National schedule back then. So how did the 34-year old, who’d won NASCAR’s premier division just three years earlier, end up contesting the US enduros at Daytona and Sebring for the Munich marque?
Expat Brit David Hobbs was the reason why Parsons became a longdistance driver for two weekends that year. The Formula 5000 star brokered an unlikely contra-deal covering Daytona’s big two events, the 24 Hours and then the 500, at the start of ’76. Parsons would join Hobbs at BMW for the sportscar event and then move over to the ’73 Grand National champion’s spare car for the 500 two weeks later.
“I got some Coca-Cola sponsorship through a friend of mine,” explains Hobbs. “Coca-Cola decals went on the side of our BMW and then on Benny’s back-up car for the 500. There was some money left over and I finished up doing the Michigan 500 in July as well.”
Parsons remembers being keen on the deal. “I wanted to do it because it was something different,” he says. “I knew it could be a little bit embarrassing because that happens any time you move out of your own environment, but I liked the idea of doing the 24 Hours.”
Parsons joined a two-car BMW of North America team fielded by Peter Gregg. The factory had arrived in the US with its Group Four `batmobiles’ the previous year and, after losing out to Gregg in the IMSA championship, had placed the cars with the US sportscar legend’s Jacksonville-based team for the new season. BMW Motorsport now provided technical assistance only, although Hobbs remembers that this aid helpfully included a squadron of German mechanics for the 24 Hours.
Gregg ended up scoring a third Daytona triumph that year, or rather Brian Redman won it for him, with a little help from stand-in John Fitzpatrick: Redman drove a total of 14 hours after the team boss got ill during the night. That figure is all the more impressive given that the 1976 race should correctly be known as the Daytona 20 Hours. And it is the events that led to the shortening of the race that dominate the recollections of both Parsons and Hobbs 30 years on.
The official fuel supply became contaminated with water and cars were spluttering to a halt left, right and centre, forcing IMSA, the then sanctioning body, to call a temporary halt to proceedings on the Sunday morning while new fuel was trucked in.
“A lot of cars, including ours, stopped out on the circuit and had to be dragged back,” says Parsons, who returned to the 24 Hours this year as Grand Marshal. “I remember it happening more than once, and we’d already had a transmission problem during the night.”
Hobbs appears to have blanked that particular race out of his memory. He shouldn’t have done, because he qualified second to Redman, held that position in the opening stages and, together with Parsons, kept the car in the top three for the best part of 12 hours.
“We had more trouble than you could shake a stick at and I don’t recall much about the racing,” he says. “The fuel business is all I can remember, that and all the fuss about Benny joining our team. There was a lot of publicity and a never-ending round of photocalls.”
Hobbs and Parsons trailed home in 10th place, 64 laps behind the Redman/Gregg/Fitzpatrick car. It wasn’t a great result, but Hobbs reckoned his big-name team-mate more than held his own.
“Benny did have some problems changing gear, especially downshifting. That wasn’t his forte, of course,” he says. “But he wasn’t that far off the times; he was certainly good enough for a 24-hour race.”
Parsons is more critical of his own performance: “I think I was within a second and a half of David. I seem to remember the quick guys running times in the low 2min 02sec during the race and I was doing 03sec. I can’t say I was happy with that because you always want to be as fast as the next guy, but you can’t just jump in and be as quick as the drivers who are doing it every weekend.
“Sebring was even tougher for me,” he goes on, “because it was a much more technical circuit than Daytona. Remember, we didn’t have the Bus Stop on the back stretch back then.”
Parsons was unable to keep the car in the lead at Sebring after Hobbs had stormed to the front from ninth on the grid. It didn’t really matter too much, because after 90 laps the car was out of the race when the crank damper broke.
Parsons would never contest the Daytona 24 Hours again, though he was back behind the wheel of a BMW, a 320i entered by Essen BMW dealer Ruediger Faltz, in the Watkins Glen Six Hours a year later. He also raced a tubeframe Oldsmobile Calais in a handful of IMSA events in 1986, two seasons before hanging up his helmet to become even more famous as a NASCAR commentator.
“Now I look back at it and say, ‘Man, I should have done more”, he adds. “I guess the opportunity never came up again; there was much less crossover back then than there is today.”
Parsons’s BMW experience did prove beneficial to his NASCAR career, though. “I was really still learning about road courses up until that point,” he explains. “Just being around great road-racers helped me a lot. I went to Riverside in ’78 and won.”