Phil Parsons called it


- Contributor
Friday, May. 04, 2012

For years, Phil Parsons had been predicting that when he finally won his first NASCAR Cup Series race the victory would come at the track then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway.

Parsons made it come true on May 1, 1988, outdueling two far more experienced drivers, Bobby Allison and Geoff Bodine, in a typically bizarre Winston 500 that produced a $5,000 fine and six-month suspension for famous, fiery A.J. Foyt.

Foyt was penalized for his actions after a bumping incident with Alan Kulwicki. Foyt twice swerved his car at NASCAR officials on pit road, leading Cup Series director Dick Beaty to order him out of the race.

All this vividly rolls back to mind as the teams gather once again at the ultrafast, 2.66-mile track, now named Talladega Superspeedway, for Sunday’s running of the Aaron’s 499.

In calling his shot, Parsons, then 30, sped his Olds, fielded by the Jackson Brothers team, to the finish line 0.21 seconds ahead of Allison's Stavola Brothers Buick. Allison passed Bodine, who led 99 of the race’s 188 laps, in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, for second place starting the last lap.

Chevy drivers Terry Labonte and Ken Schrader followed closely for fourth and fifth.

The contenders were bunched for a six-lap dash to the checkered flag by a caution flag for Ricky Rudd's blown engine.

Parsons held the lead on the restart and couldn't be caught. Allison, 50 at the time, collapsed from exhaustion upon climbing from his car in the garage area and was rushed to the track infirmary for oxygen and fluids.

"It was hot in the car. ... When I drove back into the garage, I was feeling OK, " said Allison after his release by doctors. "But when I got out of the car, wooziness hit me all of a sudden. I'll be fine. I just need to rest a bit right now. One thing's for sure, I gave it every ounce I had."

There was confusion among the record crowd, estimated at 130,000, and the press corps at the race's end. Almost simultaneously, Rick Jeffreys' Ford spun off Turn 4 and Lake Speed's Olds hit the wall in Turn 3 as the leaders began the last lap. It was uncertain whether the front pack had taken the yellow flag, meaning they'd have to hold position. Otherwise, they could race back to the finish line under rules in effect at the time.

"No, we didn't get the yellow, " said Parsons, younger brother of former Cup champion Benny Parsons. "I knew I still had to race 'em and that they'd be coming hard. I raced using the mirror all the way around the last lap. I watched Bobby and went everywhere he tried to go."

It took Parsons 111 starts dating to 1983 to score his first Cup success. "I just figured I'd break through here because it's my favorite track, " said Parsons. "It's the fastest we have, and I thrive on going fast."

To get the win, he had to overcome a miscalculation by the pit crew that led to his black No. 55 Olds running out of gas on Lap 48. Parsons was leading when he suddenly slowed coming off the second turn. He coasted back to the pits for fuel and emerged a lap down to Schrader, the leader at the time. Parsons edged ahead of Schrader to get back on the tail end of the lead lap. Phil’s deficit was erased completely when Schrader looped his car four times down the backstretch as he tried to lap Parsons on Lap 57. Parsons was in contention the rest of the way.

For much of the race, Phil, now a knowledgeable, articulate analyst on racing telecasts for the Speed Channel, rode on Bodine's bumper in a tight aerodynamic draft as the duo built leads of up to 10.7 seconds.

"It was a big mistake on the fuel deal, " said Parsons. "Basically, we were just asleep (in passing up a pitting opportunity during a yellow flag, a move all his rivals made) ." Parsons led five times for 52 laps, including the final 15.

Usually, the strategy at the big Talladega track in a situation like Parsons and Bodine found themselves is for the following driver to wait until the last lap to make his move. However, Parsons, after conferring with team owner Leo Jackson and crew chief Andy Petree by radio, decided to pass for the lead on Lap 174.

"We had planned to wait until 10 laps were left, but Geoff started shuffling back and forth in the straights, trying to break the draft, " said Parsons. "From that point on, I figured he'd be doing everything possible to keep me behind him. So I went around before he really was laying for me."

Parsons, who started third in the 41-car field, averaged 156.547 mph and won $86,850. His best previous finish was third in the ’88 Daytona 500.

As Phil and his teammates celebrated in Victory Lane, recollection of a quite different, frightening development for them at Talladega came flashing, flaming back.

In 1983 the younger Parsons took one of the wildest rides in the dangerous track’s crash-filled history.

Racing in the lead pack of cars in the Winston 500, Parsons' car suddenly made contact with another, swerved out of control in the first turn and flipped four or five times, catching fire in the process. His crumpled racer came to rest upside down and the crowd feared the worst.

Parsons miraculously sustained only a fractured scapula. But the car was such a mess NASCAR decided to put it on display in the International Motorsports Hall Of Fame and Museum adjacent to the track as an example of the safety built into its vehicles.

Parsons shook the memory of that experience to conquer the speedway that could have taken his life.

"Words can't explain how I feel, " a delighted Parsons said upon coming to the press box for the victor’s interview. "This is the most special feeling I've ever had other than when mine and Marsha's little girl was born. I've been thinking about this day since I was 5 years old and first became aware of automobile racing."

The Parsons' baby, Kinsley, was born four months earlier and she accompanied her parents to the press box for the postrace interview that Sunday 24 years ago.

"There are about 25 people I owe special thanks to for making this possible, " Parsons continued. Among those he named were his brother, Benny, the Cup champion in 1973, and team leader Johnny Hayes.

Phil worked his way up through racing's ranks, starting in subcompact sedans and then running Busch Series Grand National cars in what is now the Nationwide division. His last previous checkered flag was in a 1982 Busch race at Bristol, Tenn.

"Memories of the '83 wreck have never bothered me, although for a long while friends wouldn't seem to let me forget it,” said a chuckling Phil. “Everyone who came to visit at our house asked to see a videotape I had of the accident."

"I hope all the visitors in the future ask to see the tape of today's race. I'll be tickled to show them this one."

This undoubtedly remains the case today, for that win at Talladega almost a quarter century ago proved to be the only one Phil was to achieve in 202 Cup Series starts before retiring as a driver in 1997.

Somewhat strangely, the track with a “Twilight Zone” reputation also produced the only Cup Series triumphs for five other drivers—Richard Brickhouse, Dick Brooks, Ron Bouchard, Bobby Hillin and Lennie Pond.

This history made by Phil Parsons and the others surely gives hope on Sunday at Talladega to drivers seeking their first checkered flag in NASCAR’s big-time.

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