While Richard Petty may be remembered as the greatest stock drive of all time, his nemesis was a reticent understated racer from Carolina. Jonathan Ingram remembers the career of David Pearson
The day I first met David Pearson, I was enquiring at his motel room door if he was available for an interview. He said sure, walking into the parking lot of the Sheraton Swamp Fox Inn near Florence, South Carolina. He leaned against a Ford sedan in the shade as the late afternoon sun burned its way toward the edge of the Piedmont plain.
Casually dressed in cotton slacks and a short-sleeved dress shirt, Pearson looked like a typical Southerner on a Sunday afternoon. He had a broad, handsome, well-tanned face. His dark, slightly curled hair was topped with enough grey to conjure up his nickname of the ‘Silver Fox’ and was swept back in a style more familiar to the 1950s than 1976.
Having got so close, so easily to one of stock car racing’s living legends, I was disarmed by his ‘just folks’ manner. Here stood a man who, by the end of his career, would start 574 races, winning 105. His greatest rival Richard Petty may have won twice as many races, but he had twice as many starts to do it. Pearson would go on to win a total of three Grand National championships (later to be known as the Winston Cup) from just five seasons in which he ran a full schedule of events. Petty would win seven titles… from 32 full seasons.
And here I was, a junior reporter in the presence of greatness, being gifted an interview. I was soon, however, to learn first-hand about racing driver charisma when three women a decade older than I – and a decade younger than the 41-year-old Pearson – strolled by in cocktail dresses, each carrying a drink. “What are you doing tonight, David?” cooed a coquettish blonde as the other two dipped their knees and giggled. Pearson just smiled. After another round of giggles the women moved on, becoming wary of my notebook.
My inevitable question that evening in Darlington concerned the Triple Crown and the possibility that the next day Pearson might clinch NASCAR’s legendary hat-trick, following up his wins in the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600 with victory in the Southern 500. We talked for 15 minutes on the subject, without Pearson ever acknowledging it meant anything to him, implying it was all a figment of sportswriters’ imaginations.
By the time I had calmed down enough after the interview to review my notes for a deadline hurrying like the sundown, I searched frantically and almost fruitlessly for anything worthy enough for the lead feature in my employer’s newspaper back in Durham, North Carolina.
The following Monday afternoon I sat in the press box above the steaming black asphalt cauldron of Darlington Raceway and waited for the ‘Silver Fox’ to claim his inevitable crown. In the post-race interview, Pearson stood at the press box window with the ‘Old Lady in Black’ – as the treacherous ribbon of asphalt was known – for a backdrop. The broad white teeth and the creamy Purolator driving suit stood in sharp contrast to a face burned red by driving into the late afternoon sun. Again, the charisma was palpable as Pearson discussed, laughed and cut up while responding to questions from writers about one of the most accomplished stock car seasons on record. It was clear that winning suited him.
By the time the 1976 season had ended, Pearson had won 10 races in 22 starts. It was the second time in four seasons that the candy apple red-and-white Wood Brothers Mercury had blown away fields seemingly at will. But this season was special because of Pearson’s victory over Petty at Daytona, in what many regard as the greatest finish, if not race, in NASCAR history (see panel).
Once the chequered flag had fallen on that much discussed ‘500’, it was Pearson who made his way to the press box afterward to tell his side of the victory. But as usual, he took the quiet and subtle route despite the tumultuous ending to the race, saying that Petty had apologised to him after their wreck just 400 yards from the finish line and that he would be happy to “run beside him at high speed any time.” Pearson never did say just what caused the famous crash, only implying that Petty’s apology was explanation enough.
The reporters that day – I had yet to land my job covering the races – learned once again what I would learn later that year in Darlington: Pearson would talk a fair amount, but rarely say much that was quotable. He never did like to address controversial issues either, or questions regarding how he won so many darn races, or anything that might make him seem egotistical. He was far too proud, and too private, to have his ego paraded through newspapers by his own voice.
On the track, Pearson’s driving style was similarly quotidian. His lines were consistent, smooth, uninterrupted arcs. His tactics were to hold his cards until the final miles when a race and the money — were on the line. If not for his fame and the familiar 21 writ in gold on his car, one might have felt like Pearson came out of nowhere to win races. This was particularly tile year in, year out at Darlington, where he earned his reputation on a notorious wrecking yard of a crooked oval by winning 10 times.
This same immaculate driving style meant Pearson earned what remains a record 64 poles on superspeedways, or tracks one mile or longer. He holds another record unlikely to be broken for most consecutive poles at one track, having earned 11 straight at the Charlotte Motor Speedway and 14 all together. But perhaps it is an unofficial record that speaks most about Pearson’s ability to concentrate behind the wheel: in 574 career starts in NASCAR’s premier division, not once was he injured seriously enough to require a trip to hospital.
This skill at avoiding accidents or confrontations on the track, as well as controversy off it, sustained Pearson over the course of what is one of the most remarkable careers in NASCAR history. Intensely proud and private, the small-town South Carolinian’s lack of lust for the limelight means that he is often overlooked as perhaps the greatest driver in the sport’s history.
How Pearson stacks up against some of today’s stars like Dale Earnhardt or Danell Waltrip — or those who dominated in the 1950s — is a question that he typically would say is impossible to answer, although he admits to great admiration for Earnhardt. Nor does Pearson like to entertain the idea of a comparison with Petty, who leads most of the categories in the all-time record book.
It was the Petty and Pearson duels, which began in the 1960s, that helped sustain NASCAR in the 1970s after the major manufacturers had pulled out and commercial sponsorships were rare. Starting on August 8, 1963 at the dirt track in Columbia, South Carolina, where Petty’s Dodge beat Pearson’s, the two drove to one-two finishes an incredible 63 times. If one takes these battles as the most salient statistic, Pearson is the winner with 33 victories to Petty’s 30. On the short tracks, the two were tied with 20 wins apiece in the one-two struggles. But on superspeedways Pearson held the edge with 13 wins to 10.
Petty also had the undeniable advantage of stability that came from running with his family-operated Petty Enterprises team, which led to a record 200 victories among his 1,177 starts. Even though his career spanned 27 years, Pearson’s constant need to find rides meant far fewer starts.
Off the track, Pearson was no match for Petty in the charisma category. He may have been readily available, but ‘King Richard’ generated far more stories and popularity thanks to his gift for gab. Even when he lost, such as that memorable Daytona 500, Petty retained his charm. “I had one ulcer when I came down here and now I’ve got two.”
Where Petty was a genuine, outgoing folk hero (and still is), Pearson was always more comfortable with the folks back home in the Carolina mill town of Whitney, where he was born, or Spartanburg, where he lived. He lived a hand-to-mouth existence for his first three seasons from 1960-1962, relying on help from members of the Spartanburg community and a $2000 loan from his father. Later, when he became successful, Pearson often fired up his barbecue grill and hosted lunch at his farm for his working class buddies.
Like many journalists as well as fans, I admired Petty for his ability to sustain so much demand for his time and attention with humour, cheer and grace. As a driver, he put his emphasis on smoothness, too, and was never so much a rabble-rouser, as a driver who let the race come to him and his often outstanding equipment. But for me, Pearson was in a class of his own when it came to shepherding a field of cars around a high-banked superspeedway all afternoon as if they were sheep, before picking up the trophy.
When David was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association’s Hall of Fame, the ceremonies took place at Darlington precisely 15 years after I first met him. At long last, he answered the question about how he won so many races at that track, wilich also shed light on how he won so many races overall. “The thing about Darlington,” said Pearson, “is the traffic. There’s only one groove. You had to be able to look down the track and see where the guy up ahead was, so you could pass him on the straightaways instead of in the corners. What you had to do was give up two or three tenths (of a second) on your lap time if you had to. Instead of catching him down there in Turn Three, you didn’t get to him until you come off the corner at Turn Four.”
It all sounds simple enough, but it presupposes being able to set up a car properly, then drive it well enough to afford giving up vital split-seconds to make sure you caught cars where you wanted to catch them. Outstanding depth perception and sharp vision, a driver’s two best friends, were also mandatory, not to mention immense concentration. Those qualities also served him well on other superspeedways, where Pearson practiced the art of drafting to perfection.
I couldn’t attend every one of Pearson’s races after we first met, but I don’t recall him ever making a mistake while overtaking another driver. Although one of his most memorable victories was number 100 at the North Carolina Motor Speedway near Rockingham, a race that was nearly ruined by an accident.
On that day, Pearson was duelling Benny Parsons on the broad, 22 degree banks of the 1.017-mile track. With the laps winding down, Parsons nudged Pearson’s Mercury as he tried to get by underneath. That tap sent the Wood Brothers entry pinwheeling. A lesser driver would not have kept the car out of the wall. But after a complete 360-degree spin plus another half loop on the steep banking, Pearson gathered his car up and returned to pit road for fresh tyres without losing a lap. After the re-start, he caught Parsons and steamed past with barely a problem.
It was a scenario reminiscent of that 1976 Daytona 500. So what really did happen out there on the very last turn of the race? “You’ll have to ask Richard Petty,” he said. As always, his pride and his anger were under control, just like his cars.
In 1976, disco and ‘The Bump’ were the dancing craze, but no one expected the popular trend to become the theme for one of the most memorable Daytona 500s ever contested.
For 500 miles, Richard Petty and David Pearson had waged another of their patented, furious late-race wars on a superspeedway, but this one included an astounding three exchanges of the lead on the final lap before it was decided by a crash at the finish line.
Entering that final lap, ‘The King’ was leading in the STP Dodge, but Pearson used the draft from a backmarker to slingshot by at the end of the long back straight. Petty countered by ducking inside Pearson’s Mercury as the cars careened through Turn Four, but understeer pushed the Dodge up the track and the two cars bumped and wobbled side-by-side. In the chute between Turn Four and the finish, it appeared Petty had Pearson beat, but when he pulled in front to complete the pass, the cars bumped again.
The resulting contact sent Pearson into the outside wall immediately. Petty carried on for another 75 yards before he too lost control and crashed into the outside wall after overcorrecting. Pearson spun onto the pit road, where he hit another car trying to avoid the accident, and Petty’s car spun crazily across the grass median separating the pit road from the track, coming to a halt an agonising 25 yards from the finish line with a stalled engine.
Pearson, who kept his engine running, then trundled his crippled car across the grassy median, past Petty’s stalled machine, and took the chequered flag in first gear as Pony’s crewmen rushed to try to push their stalled driver to the finish. “My engine never died,” said Pearson. “Before I hit the wall I popped the clutch, put it in neutral and revved the engine as high as I could to keep it from stalling.”
Petty was of two minds after the race, initially blaming himself. “I just flat lost it,” he said. “My right rear hit his left front. If there’s anybody to be mad at it’s myself.” But then Petty viewed footage from the television coverage and changed his mind. “He hit my right rear,” said Petty. “I apologized to him for what happened in Turn Four, not for what caused the crash.”
Pearson stuck with Petty’s apology, offered when the two met briefly right after the race. “I think he just went a little too high too early,” said Pearson. “Check with ABC TV,” Petty replied when asked if the crash was Pearson’s fault.
If the feelings of the two drivers were contrary, passions between the teams of the two rivals went way over the red line. Petty’s brother Maurice and another crewman jumped on Pearson’s car as he headed toward Victory Lane, seemingly trying to get at the driver. “Was I worried that Maurice would get into the car?” said Pearson. “If he had, it would have been the biggest mistake he ever made.”
In later years Petty acknowledged he moved across too soon, but by any account, the slowest finish to the ‘500’ on record was also the most spectacular.