There are a lot of ways to begin the broadcast tonight: a thoroughly bloody day in Iraq, the genuine suffering and growing death toll from the relentless ice storm in the American South, the candidacy of Barack Obama. We will sort it all out between now and airtime. Also tonight, we'll look at the insurance crisis in the wake of so many hurricanes, we'll continue our automotive series "Car Wars," and we'll talk about what may be the most interesting story of the day in societal terms: the New York Times extrapolation and analysis of the latest census figures (NYTimes.com login required for link), showing the percentage of American women (including breakdowns by category) currently living without a spouse. In whatever final configuration it takes on, it will be a news-filled half hour.
ONE OF THE GREATS IS GONE
This morning, assuming I'd already heard the news, my assistant innocently handed me a piece of wire copy announcing the death of Benny Parsons. Benny, or BP as he was known, was one of the great figures in American stock car racing, and among the very best and most colorful drivers of all time. He raced in the era of Yarborough, Allison, Pearson and Petty -- and made a name for himself through sheer courage, skill and determination. Stamina also played a part: he raced for 24 years and made 526 big-league starts. He was born poor and drove a taxi for a living before realizing that his true calling was driving a car without any passengers. He famously wrote down "taxi driver" under "profession" on race entry forms well into his professional years. His fans knew differently. In the parlance of the sport, Benny hauled the mail.
I have to add a personal note about what a thrill it was to get to know Benny Parsons. I had lunch with him in his native North Carolina back in May. We talked about the new home he was building and his life as a public figure of the sport. He learned he had cancer in July, and faced it with the very same bravery that served him so well behind the wheel. He spoke and wrote openly about his illness, and despite being declared cancer-free in October, the disease came roaring back, and it took him quickly. He was the first man to break the 200-mile per hour barrier in NASCAR, and BP did nothing slowly. Years ago, during a wild night in Alabama, I actually got to race against the legend. OK, so it was only at a go-kart track, but Benny would still find a way to beat you -- or leave you beaten up as a reminder of having competed against him. As a co-worker with us here at NBC, he was quickly beloved, and in no time became the best color commentator NASCAR ever had. I will never forget the night, while walking through a motel lobby on the eve of the Talladega 500, when Benny struck up a conversation with Steve Capus (NBC News President and veteran NASCAR fan) and me -- looking back at it, I'm afraid we stood there afterward like two starstruck little kids. All those who love the sport are mourning one of its greats. There have been a lot of NASCAR drivers over the years -- some of them with a better record than Benny's 21 victories -- none of them with quite as much character, humor, presence or stature -- as BP.
We hope you will join us for tonight's broadcast.