Winning percentage would've made Pearson the Prince

South Carolinian held his own with the King

Friday, May. 20, 2011

If you're lucky, and you hit the right Carolinas dirt track on the right summer night, you might look out on the oval and see a driver with silver hair and a '37 flathead Ford.

He's 76 years old, and these days he spends most of his time having lunch with his friends and tending to his donkeys and goats. But the other drivers in the classic car races know all about him. They call ahead to see if he's racing that night. When he does, a lot of them don't.

"We don't run a whole lot," David Pearson says. "But I don't believe I've lost one yet."

David Pearson flat knows how to win a race. That's the main thing that put him into this year's class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

He won 105 times in his career, second only to Richard Petty's untouchable 200 - and he ran less than half the races that Petty did. When they finished 1-2 - an astonishing 63 times - Pearson edged the King, 33-30.

Another way to look at it: Petty is NASCAR's greatest champion. Dale Earnhardt is NASCAR's greatest icon. Pearson might have been NASCAR's greatest talent.

"A lot of guys you run against have one or two techniques," Petty says. "He had all kinds of different techniques. He had different game plans for every situation. Every time it got down to the end and it was him and me, it was different. I knew he was sharp."

But with Pearson it was more than talent. In his prime - from the mid-'60s to the late '70s - he was always the coolest driver on the track. His nickname was the Silver Fox, and it wasn't just because he went prematurely gray.

Back in NASCAR's wilder days, Pearson kept a dashboard cigarette lighter in his car. He'd fly down the backstretch driving with one hand and lighting a smoke with the other. One time, as he was passing Buddy Baker, he flicked a butt out the window at Baker as he went by.

In the 1974 Firecracker 400 at Daytona, he was leading on the last lap but Petty was drafting in second, ready to slingshot around him. So Pearson suddenly slowed and veered to the inside, as if his car had died. Petty went by, Pearson got in behind him and pulled the slingshot himself in Turn 4 to win.

Pearson won the pole 11 times in a row at Charlotte Motor Speedway. This was great for Pearson - he got more money and more publicity - but bad for the track. A lot of fans came to qualifying to make bets in the stands over who would take the pole. But when Pearson started winning every time, the fans quit coming.

In the middle of the streak, Humpy Wheeler - the speedway's former president and legendary promoter - decided to figure out how Pearson was doing it. Somebody told him it had to do with how Pearson went over a hump the track had in Turn 1. So Wheeler sent out a bulldozer to smooth out the hump.

Pearson went out for qualifying and not only won the pole, he broke the track record. He got out of the car, called Wheeler in his office and said five words before hanging up:

"You got the wrong place."

That was almost 40 years ago. Has Pearson ever told his secret?

"Hell, no," Wheeler says. "If he was in the hospital on a ventilator, he wouldn't tell. Or he'd just make something up. That was too good to give away."

Always creeping up

The funny thing is, for all the times Pearson won the pole, he never much liked to be out front.

In a sport that tempts drivers to keep mashing the gas, Pearson spent most of a race in the slow lane. Halfway through the race you could barely find him. But as other drivers wrecked or wore out their cars, Pearson crept toward the front. With 100 miles to go, he'd ease into the top 10. With 50 miles to go, he'd ease into the top five. And at the end, he'd be right there with a shot at the checkered flag.

He drove for several owners in his early years but found a perfect match in Wood Brothers Racing in the '70s. They didn't have the money of some other owners, so they picked only the races they thought they had a good shot to win. And their philosophy fit Pearson's style.

"They liked you to take care of their car and not abuse it," said Hall of Famer Junior Johnson. "Pearson would kind of hang back and drag on through the race, and by the end he hadn't abused the car and he was ready to win."

Pearson and the Wood Brothers won a lot. In their seven full years together (1972-78), they won 43 times. In 1973, Pearson entered just 18 races. He won 11.

Along the way they created one of NASCAR's greatest finishes. In the 1976 Daytona 500, Pearson and Petty ran nearly side by side coming out of the last turn. They bumped. Both cars hit the wall and spun down all the way into the infield. Petty ended up in front, not 100 yards from the finish, but his car stalled. Pearson got his going, drove up through the grass and made it back onto the track just in time to cross the finish line.

Pearson and Petty have always gotten along; their kids used to play together in the infield while their dads raced. But they still argue about what happened in that last turn. Wednesday night, at a Hall of Fame induction dinner, it came up again. Pearson was asked what he said on the radio to his crew chief after the wreck.

"I told him the b**** hit me," Pearson said.

"Hey, hey, hey," Petty said. "I was in front of you. I can't hit you when I was in front of you. Go back, go back, look at the film."

They were laughing about it.

Sort of.

A shining moment missed

If Pearson had a flaw, it was bad timing. That Daytona finish was three years too early. NASCAR was a fringe sport on TV, taped and edited. In 1979, CBS took a chance on showing Daytona live and hit the jackpot: Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed on the last lap, they brawled in the infield (along with Donnie's brother Bobby), and Petty slid through for the win.

America was finally ready for NASCAR. But Pearson had peaked. Later in '79, he and the Wood Brothers split after an embarrassing moment at Darlington when two of Pearson's wheels came off as he left pit road. He won once in '79 and once in '80, and raced through 1986 but never won again.

Everybody agrees on the two iconic car numbers in NASCAR. One is Petty's 43. The other is Earnhardt's 3. The third, if you're an old-school race fan, is the Wood Brothers' 21. Lots of other big-name drivers have run that car for the Wood Brothers - Bill Elliott, Kyle Petty, Neil Bonnett, Dale Jarrett. But the 21 car draws most of its legend from Pearson.

"He just missed the era when drivers became well known nationally," Humpy Wheeler says. "He would be a star today. People would eat him up. He was really, really part of the South in a way that most drivers don't come off today. He grew up on mill hill in Spartanburg, fixed his own cars. We don't even have a big-time driver from South Carolina today, which is... it's past astonishing."

He ran a team for his sons in the Busch Series (now the Nationwide Series) for a while, but before long he retired to Spartanburg, not far from where he grew up. Some days he goes out and talks to the donkeys and goats. He used to have 14 goats. Then coyotes showed up. He's down to four.

He'll go to a car show or auction now and then to look for a deal. He had a bunch of classics but now he's down to three - a '38 Chevy, a '39 Ford and a '55 Chevy.

"These days you can buy them already built cheaper than you can rebuild them," he says. "But that '55 Chevy... that one took a lot of work. I had to put windows in it. Fixed the seat in it. Changed the gear shift levers. Every now and then I just like to get out there and tinker."

He never was that much for talking about himself, even when he was winning all those races. You get the feeling he's hoping the hall of fame attention is over soon. But if he's coaxed, the stories come out.

At the dinner Wednesday night, Winston Kelley of the hall of fame brought out a record called "NASCAR Goes Country" that several drivers cut in Nashville in 1975. There was no danger of it knocking George Jones off the charts. They played a clip of Pearson singing Chuck Berry's "Maybellene." Pearson winced as he heard it. But then he told the story of recording the song in the studio.

"I started drinking - and I didn't even drink," he said. "Right before lunch I said, 'I'm ready.' We were supposed to do two songs apiece. I came back from lunch sobered up. And I said, 'I ain't doing the second one.'"

Magic passed along

Pearson doesn't go to many NASCAR races these days - he'll go to Darlington, come to Charlotte, maybe one or two more a year. But this year he made a special trip to Daytona for the 500. The Wood Brothers had honored Pearson by painting the 21 car in red and white with gold numbers - the paint scheme when Pearson started driving for them in 1972. Maybe they were looking for a little magic. The team hadn't won a Cup race in 10 years.

While Pearson was in Daytona, the Woods introduced him to their new driver, 20-year-old Trevor Bayne. Bayne asked him for advice.

"I just told him don't get out there and try to lead every lap," Pearson says. "You're ruining your motor. Wait to the last part. If you wait that long, about half of them would knock themselves out."

An early wreck took out several contenders. Bayne hung around in the middle of the pack, often working in tandem with Jeff Gordon. As more wrecks thinned the field, Bayne moved up. There were so many cautions that the race went into extra laps. The last wreck took out Dale Earnhardt Jr., and leader David Ragan was black-flagged for passing on the restart. All of a sudden Bayne was in the lead. He held off Carl Edwards for the last five laps.

The Wood Brothers had their first Daytona 500 since 1976, when Pearson and Petty had that wreck in the last turn, and Pearson crawled up through the grass.

And Trevor Bayne took David Pearson's advice, driving an echo of David Pearson's old car, and won a big race the way David Pearson won so many.

Cool to the end.

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