By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
Longtime radio announcer Barney Hall gave David Pearson his “Silver Fox” nickname, which fit extraordinarily well beyond the graying hair that emerged during his salad days of the 1970s. Pearson was elusive as in hard to catch. He was wily as in difficult to pin down. And, he was fast as evidenced by his 18.3 winning percentage – 105 victories in 574 starts.
There are many who believe Pearson, who died at age 83 this week, was NASCAR’s best driver, which draws no argument here. His winning percentage, after all, is incredible for a driver who competed during the first two dangerous decades of superspeedway racing.
On the track, Pearson’s lines were consistent, smooth, uninterrupted arcs. His tactics were to hold his cards and stay out of trouble until the final miles when a race and the money were on the line. If not for his fame and the familiar 21 inscribed in gold on his Wood Brothers cars, one sometimes felt like Pearson came out of nowhere to win races. This was particularly true year in, year out at Darlington, where he earned his nickname on the notorious wrecking yard of a crooked oval by winning 10 times.
One year at Darlington, Pearson was almost lapped by Buddy Baker in the early going. By the end of the race, winner Pearson had lapped Baker twice – firing up a cigarette as he passed Baker a second time using the lighter the Wood Brothers installed on his dashboard.
I first met Pearson as a rookie reporter the night before the Southern 500 at Darlington in 1976. My editors at the Durham (N.C.) Herald had told me to go to Darlington and get a story on Pearson, who was on the verge of winning stock car racing’s Triple Crown. It was like sending a cub reporter to the World Series to interview the starting pitcher in Game 7.
Since they raced on Labor Day at that time, the track shut down on Sunday. I found Pearson by knocking on his motel room door. When he answered I told him I was working on a story for the Durham newspaper. He stepped outside, leaned up against a car in the parking lot, folded his massive forearms across his chest and, more or less, invited me to fire away without saying a word.
“What do you think about winning the Triple Crown tomorrow?” I asked eagerly. “Aw, that’s just something some sportswriter made up,” he replied. It was my first lesson about how Pearson could answer questions but rarely gave a reporter much to quote. It was always a matter of downplaying expectations in the newspapers in the Southeast that regularly covered NASCAR at the time.
The next day, Pearson went on to win the Southern 500 in the Wood Brothers Mercury – one of 10 wins in 22 starts – and capture the unofficial Triple Crown for winning the Daytona 500, the World 600 in Charlotte and the “Granddaddy of Them All” at Darlington on Labor Day. He was in the midst of a span six seasons with the Wood Brothers where he won 37 races from 124 starts – or nearly one of every three races he entered.
Admittedly, NASCAR was suffering through doldrums throughout the 1970s after the withdrawal of the factories. Only a handful of teams were capable of winning regularly and there was a lot of feast or famine. Out of these depressed economic times for NASCAR, Richard Petty and Petty Enterprises won 89 of his 200 victories during the 1970s while running a full schedule. He won 39 races in the 1970 and 1971 seasons alone, the last two years of the old era of NASCAR sanctioning more than 50 races a year.
Cale Yarborough won 52 races during this decade while running a full schedule with Junior Johnson. Pearson won 47 races from far fewer starts than any of his peers as the Wood Brothers concentrated on superspeedways and skipped the short track races.
It was the Petty and Pearson duels, which began in the 1960s, that helped sustain NASCAR despite the missing manufacturers and lack of commercial sponsorships in the 1970s. Starting on August 8, 1963 at the dirt track in Columbia, South Carolina, where Petty’s Dodge beat Pearson’s, the two raced 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.
Where Petty won seven titles from 32 full seasons, Pearson won three championships in NASCAR’s premier series from five full seasons.
Off the track, Pearson was no match for Petty. “The King” generated far more stories and popularity thanks to his gift for gab and love of engagement with the public.
Over the years, I continued to be reminded that Pearson would talk a fair amount, but rarely say much that was quotable. He never did like to address controversial issues either, or fielding questions on how he won so many 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. He just didn’t cotton to the limelight. By contrast, around his driving peers Pearson displayed a more jocular good ol’ boy character.
When the National Motorsports Press Association inducted Pearson in to its Hall of Fame, the ceremonies took place at Darlington 15 years after I first met him. At long last, he answered the question about how he won so many races at that track. “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.”
Not getting caught in the frequent accidents at Darlington was half the equation. Leonard Wood, while watching from the pit road, explained the other half. “When he needed to pick up his lap times, David had a way of skipping the car through Turn 4 (now Turn 2) by driving right down to the edge of the track from the higher groove. He could gain one or two tenths every lap.”
Crew Chief Wood was familiar with Pearson’s tendency to try to lower expectations. “If you asked him what sort of lap time he might run in qualifying, he’d always tell you something one or two tenths slower than what he thought he might run. He always wanted to do better than what you thought he might do.”
His immaculate driving style earned Pearson what remains a record 64 poles on 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 altogether. 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 during its most dangerous era, not once was he injured seriously enough to require a trip to the hospital.
This skill at avoiding accidents or confrontations on the track, as well as controversy off it, sustained Pearson. A notable exception was his victory over Petty in the 1976 Daytona 500 in the year of the Triple Crown. The two crashed coming to the checkers and Pearson eventually chugged across the finish line at 20 mph while Petty sat stalled on the tri-oval grass in what still ranks as one of the greatest Daytona 500 finishes ever. After the controversy died down, Petty eventually acknowledged he had failed to complete his pass of the Wood Brothers Mercury and hit it.
Intensely proud and private, small-town South Carolinian Pearson’s lack of lust for the limelight meant that he is sometimes overlooked as perhaps the greatest driver in the sport’s history compared to the likes of Petty, Junior Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, all of whom generated more publicity.
Rather incredibly, Pearson failed to make the inaugural class at NASCAR’s Hall of Fame. But if it came down to pure driving or the kind of self-preservation skills worthy of a fox, Pearson was the greatest.