How calm, cool and collected was David Pearson behind the wheel of a race car?
“If you recall, he had a cigarette lighter in his car,” says Len Wood, co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing. “They tell tales of him lighting a cigarette going down the backstretch [and] passing Buddy Baker. While Buddy’s fighting his car for all he’s worth.”
Anyone who could win 105 NASCAR Cup races and three championships while spending the bulk of his career running only a partial schedule ... well, getting flustered while behind the wheel probably didn’t happen very often, if ever at all.
“David Pearson was as cool as a cucumber,” Wood says. “He never got rattled.”
Richard Petty calls Pearson the best driver he’s ever seen, high praise coming from the only man to win more races (200-105) during a time when the two often went toe-to-toe and bumper-to-bumper for the checkered flag.
The two legendary drivers finished first and second 63 times, with Pearson holding a slight, 33-30 advantage.
Ten career wins at treacherous old Darlington.
The incredible win while battling Petty at Daytona in 1976, both drivers crashing on their way to the checkered flag in the season’s biggest event.
Eleven consecutive poles at Charlotte – enough to lead then-track president H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler to alter one of the track’s turns in an effort to throw Pearson off his game.
Seventeen consecutive seasons with one or more wins.
But Pearson was, by his own admission, “just a little ol’ mill hill boy coming up there and winning that World 600.”
And that, says Pearson, “was the biggest thrill there was for me.”
His career record remarkable, his talent behind the wheel unmistakable, Pearson will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on May 23, along with Bobby Allison, Ned Jarrett, Bud Moore and Lee Petty.
“To tell you the truth, I never did even think about it,” Pearson, 66, says when asked about his upcoming induction. “When you’re out there racing or going to a race track, you don’t ever think about the future, what’s going to happen or nothing like that. If you did, you probably would be scared about it. You wouldn’t even try.”
His NASCAR career was already under way in 1961 when he was called upon to drive for noted car builder Ray Fox at Charlotte. At the urging of a handful of others who knew of Pearson’s talent on the short dirt tracks of the region – most notably Cotton Owens, Bud Moore and Joe Littlejohn – Fox offered the seat to the young driver, uncertain of what to expect.
“Undoubtedly the good Lord was with me and Ray couldn’t find nobody to drive his car, so they called me and asked me if I wanted to come up and drive Ray’s car,” Pearson says. “They told me it was a factory-backed car and everything. So I knew it had to be a good car and they knew it was a good car.
“So I said, ‘Well sure.’ Because all I had was that dirt track car that I had bought off Jack Smith, so I threw everything down and went to Charlotte. Went up there to try it out and talk to Ray about it.
“I got in the car, went out there and tried it out and the car ran good. I ran good in it. I didn’t know how fast I ran in it until I come in and he said I ran real good.
“He said, ‘How did the car feel?’
“I said, ‘I don’t know how it’s supposed to feel. I ain’t never run this fast in my life.’”
Despite having never led a lap in Cup competition, Pearson dominated what was then known as the World 600, leading 225 laps and beating Fireball Roberts by two laps.
“And I won it on three wheels,” he says. “I had a flat tire going down the backstretch.
“Everybody thinks [my best race] was probably Daytona [in 1976] ... but I always felt like the World 600, the first big race I ever ran, was my best.”
Pearson and Fox paired up again when the series moved to Daytona for the Firecracker 250, which Pearson won, and again in Atlanta, which resulted in yet another victory.
“At that time, nobody had won three big races like that in one year,” Pearson says. “That fixed me right up.”
It also opened the door for him to join Owens, with whom he won his first championship.
While he was tagged the Silver Fox for his tendency to lie back and save his car for the latter stages of a race, Pearson waited for no one during the early years of his career.
And although he was never injured, he had his share of hard crashes along the way.
“Let me knock on wood. I got bruised in a car, but I have never ridden in an ambulance, never had a bone broken, nothing,” Pearson says.
“Now, the hardest I ever hit was at Bristol. Me and Marvin Panch, I was passing him and our wheels got together, neither one of us could turn and we went straight into the wall.”
Pearson was still driving for Owens, Panch for the Wood Brothers when the two tangled in the 1965 Volunteer 500, just eight laps into the race.
“I never will forget, Glen [Wood] asked me after the race, he said, ‘David, why was you running so hard now?’ because it was early in the race,” Pearson says.
“I said, ‘Well, they throwed the green flag.’ I thought it was time to go.”
By mid-1967, Pearson had moved on, joining the powerful Holman-Moody racing operation, where he won back-to-back titles and 27 races during a two-year span.
His three championships came during the only seasons in which he ran the majority of the season. He finished third in 1974, despite competing in only 19 races for Wood Brothers Racing.
That particular pairing resulted in 43 more victories, and had the team chosen to run a full schedule, Pearson says it’s likely his championship total would have grown.
“Racing has been real good to me, it really has,” Pearson says. “I can’t complain one bit. ... I’ve had good times with the people I’ve driven for. It’s something else; I wouldn’t go back and change a thing.”
Fittingly, Leonard Wood, one of the original founders of Wood Brothers Racing, will introduce Pearson prior to his induction.
“It was good,” Pearson says. “And if I was with the Woods and ran for the championship ... it’s no telling how many I would have won.”