December 13, 2012

Wheels keep turning

Parsons, 78, still enjoys BMX competition

By Chris Whitfield
chriswhitfield@daltoncitizen.com

— Nearly three decades ago, Dalton’s Phares Parsons was enjoying watching his son Sandy compete in bicycle motocross (BMX) races across the nation and eventually throughout the world.

At the age of 49, Parsons was tired of merely watching.

“My son started racing, and I went to the race with him a time or two and got bored just sitting there watching,” Parsons said. “They had a 25-and-over class, and I just got into it and loved the sport.”

For the past three decades, BMX has been a huge part of the former insurance salesman’s life. He and his son competed in his first world championships in England in 1986 — becoming the first father and son to compete at the world championships together — and he has continued to ride across the nation and globe.

As recently as November, at the age of 78, he competed in the BMX Nationals in Tulsa, Okla., finishing sixth in the main event for racers 61 and older. And as he continues to race while nearing his eighth decade on Earth, he is an inspiration to riders across the world.

“He is the oldest guy to ever race, and it is pretty exciting,” said pro rider Shan Hatfield of Acworth. “I have known him since I was 14, when I met him at the world championships in London. It is amazing to see him on the track at his age. He gets around the track pretty well, pedaling the entire way.”

When Parsons began racing in the 1980s, he was in the oldest class of 25 and older, competing against riders half his age. As he has continued in the sport, new age groups have emerged as other riders have matured. Parsons said he raced for “four or five years” in the 25-and-older class before the BMX organization started a 35-plus class. Then, a 45-plus division was created, and until last year he was in the 55-plus class.

Now, the age gap is closing — he is only 17 years older than his youngest competition in the 61-and-older class. And even though he got a late start in the sport, it has become one of the biggest parts of his life, and he has become a big part of the sport as well, both as a competitor and an ambassador to other generations.

“(My wife Dale) asks me when I am going to quit,” he said with a laugh, “but I still love it. Some of the guys told me that if I ever got too old, they would just push me around the track. I have a lot of friends in racing, and it is unbelievable the friendships you can make. The kids, too, coming up and high-fiving me is a big thrill. It is just a lot of friendships out there, and I meet new friends every time I race.”

Hatfield, a 41-plus category racer who is in the top six of the USA BMX points standings, said having Parsons on the track and around the racing is an inspiration for others.

“He is pretty big as an ambassador for the sport,” Hatfield said. “When he goes around the track, people are clapping when he goes around the track. People know his age and his story and they are so supportive of him, and you can tell he just loves what he is doing.”

Parsons takes the compliments as a point of pride and hopes he is able to bring more people to the tracks.

“They all say I inspire them, and a lot of them say I wouldn’t even be racing if it wasn’t for you — the older guys and the kids too,” Parsons said. “I just want to be a mentor for the kids and encourage them to be involved in the sport and learn to have sportsmanship and to always race with their helmets on.”

Going from competitor to ambassador in a sport he discovered later in his life has been a long journey. A 1951 graduate of Dalton High, he was a drummer in the school’s band all four years. He went on to graduate from Carrollton’s West Georgia College in the mid-50s.

For the next thirty years, he was an insurance agent locally for Life and Casualty, Inc., before retiring in 1989. By that time, the racing bug had hit and he was already the “old man” on the track. That same year, he had made his first world championship, and he would go on to the world championships five other times. Through all of that time in every race he has been in, he has been the oldest competitor.

Eventually, his grandson, Spencer Ferris, spent time on the racing circuit as well. But the old man is hoping for a chance to race with one other family member.

“I have a great grandson who is 3 1/2, so maybe he is going to come along,” Parsons said. “It would be great to have a great-grandson, great-grandfather race one day. We have a new ‘strider’ class for ages 2-5 where you don’t pedal, but it is like a scooter race. I am hoping they will do that for 75-over and we can just push it around the track and not have to worry about pedals or chains.”

While he still races competitively, Parsons said that it isn’t as convenient as it used to be. He doesn’t drive at night, but he has friends he has met over the years who help him get to races. Evolution Bike in Acworth also has helped out recently as well, sponsoring his trip to Tulsa. He also now has a lifetime membership to USA BMX.

“I don’t drive that much anymore, but I have friends that come by and take me to the track,” Parsons said of Dean McCall and Arthur Luck of Virginia and Otis Hopkins of North Carolina. “They are right there to help me. We all buddy together racing, and it is just a good friendship to have. If it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t be able to go.”

But he keeps going, keeps pedaling and keeps taking the twists and turns and climbing the hills of the track. Even though he came to the sport late, he doesn’t plan on retiring any time soon.

“I love racing,” he said.