David Pearson was cool.
When you talk with somebody about Pearson, that’s the word that always crops up eventually. Pearson died Monday at age 83, a shy NASCAR superstar with the kind of driving talent you just can’t teach.
Pearson was cool enough to occasionally light a cigarette while driving a race car at 180 mph. Cool enough to earn the nickname “Silver Fox” and the title of Sports Illustrated’s NASCAR “Driver of the Century” in 1999. Cool enough to drive his own race car to dirt tracks around the Carolinas in the late 1950s before he made it big, carrying only a ham sandwich and a pair of pliers with him.
That last story, about the ham sandwich, may have been apocryphal. The Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald, Pearson’s hometown newspaper, printed it in the early 1960s. But I like to believe it, imagining Pearson chomping on the sandwich in one hand while adjusting something under the hood with the pliers in the other.
The Spartanburg Herald (later the Herald-Journal) was my hometown paper, too. Decades before I ever met or interviewed Pearson, I would spread out the sports section on the floor during the 1970s and read about Pearson and his weekend duels with Richard Petty.
It’s hard to explain now what a big deal NASCAR was in the Carolinas back then. This was well before the Charlotte Hornets or the Carolina Panthers were a glimmer in anyone’s eye. In Spartanburg, the sports scene was pretty much NASCAR, pro wrestling, college football and high school football.
I wasn’t even interested in racing back then, and I never went to the nearby dirt tracks.
But I was interested in Pearson.
Just from the photos I could tell Pearson had a quality I wanted (and, alas, would never acquire).
He was effortlessly cool.
A ‘plain ol’ country boy’
Pearson was to Spartanburg then what Stephen Curry is to Charlotte now.
In both cases, those men didn’t actually spend all of their childhood in the city proper, and in both cases they were completely adopted as local heroes and went on to multiple championships. Curry is a more polished product in many ways, but Pearson was a good fit for his times — hard-scrabble, handsome, street smart. He sometimes described himself as a “plain ol’ country boy,” and his Southern accent was as syrupy as the sweet tea they serve at Spartanburg’s iconic Beacon restaurant.
But Pearson could have taught a post-doctoral class on how to let other drivers wreck their cars in the middle of the race and then slide into contention in the last 20 laps.
Pearson won three championships in NASCAR’s top series, in 1966, 1968 and 1969. But he won his first-ever big race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1961 in the World 600, an unknown who was driving on three tires in the final lap after his right rear tire blew out. He took the checkered flag while supplying his own fireworks, as his tire rim sent showers of sparks into the sky.
In the paper the next day, The Charlotte Observer called him “a brash 26-year-old newcomer to big-league stock car racing” in a story. The headline: “Pearson Finishes On 3 Tires for 600 Victory Before 50,000.”
The Charlotte News said the crowd watching the race was asking itself a question as Pearson kept holding onto the lead:
Dueling with Petty
He turned out to be a racer who would win 104 more times in NASCAR’s top series, second only to Petty’s 200 victories. The two were frenemies before the word was invented.
Pearson ran in fewer than half the races Petty did — the Silver Fox was mostly interested in the races that paid the best. Pearson actually had a 33-30 edge in races where Petty and Pearson finished 1-2 in some order.
The Petty-Pearson rivalry was alliterative and adrenalin-fueled. It was NASCAR’s version of Borg-McEnroe or Arnie-Jack.
The two men were similarly gifted on the track and dissimilar off it. Petty has always been a charismatic glad-hander who would talk to anybody and sign autographs for hours. Pearson was slightly bashful off the track and, while confident in his own ability, was never extremely comfortable talking in front of a crowd or about himself.
Said Petty in a statement Tuesday after Pearson’s death became public (the cause of death wasn’t immediately announced, although Pearson did have a stroke in 2014): “I have always been asked who my toughest competitor in my career was. The answer has always been David Pearson. ... It wasn’t a rivalry, but more mutual respect. ... He pushed me just as much as I pushed him on the track. We both became better for it.”
Just one of the guys
Pearson should have been inducted into the first class of NASCAR’s hall of fame in 2010. He was edged out because 40 percent of that first class had the last name of “France,” the sport’s founding family. Pearson was instead inducted into the second class of hall of famers and — after thanking his family for “puttin’ up with me while I was racin’ and everything” — gave a shout-out to Petty in his induction speech.
“I want to thank Richard Petty, too,” Pearson said then. “He’s probably the one that made me win as many as I did. I run hard because he’d make me run hard. Sometimes he would make a mistake and I’d pass him. ... I’ve had more fun running with him than anybody I ever run with, ‘cause I knew if I ever went to a racetrack and he was there, if I could beat him, I’d win the race.”
In some ways, Pearson peaked too early. He was in his prime before every race was shown live on TV. If you’re under 35 and don’t know much about NASCAR other than the name Dale Earnhardt, you probably never heard of Pearson.
But let me tell you, the Silver Fox was cool. As Dale Earnhardt Jr. said about Pearson on Twitter Monday: “What a badass.”
In his later years, Pearson collected classic cars. He liked donkeys and goats and kept a number of them on his property in Spartanburg, where he lived in a house that he bought in 1977. He had lunch with his friends. He saw his family.
It was a quiet life, which was what he wanted. Until the end, Pearson was just one of the guys.