Over his 27-year NASCAR Grand National and Winston Cup career, David Pearson only ran 574 races, yet racked up an astounding 113 poles, 105 wins and three series championships. Nicknamed the Silver Fox for his prematurely gray hair and calculating driving style, Pearson was a proven winner on superspeedways, ovals, road courses and dirt tracks alike, yet his quiet and unassuming demeanor generally kept him out of the media spotlight. On Monday, November 12, the NASCAR Hall of Fame driver died in Spartanburg, South Carolina, age 83.
Pearson chose his future career while still a young boy, after climbing a tree outside the Spartanburg Fairgrounds to watch the stock car races. He quit school after the 10th grade, and by age 18 he was racing a 12-year old Ford in outlaw class events, supplementing the money he made laboring in an auto body shop during the day. Pearson steadily worked his way up the racing ladder, graduating to NASCAR’s Grand National series in 1960, after winning the 1959 championship at Greenville-Pickens Speedway and racking up 14 wins at Columbia Speedway.
Pearson’s self-sponsored Chevrolet ran in 22 of 44 races during the 1960 season, likely all that his budget would allow. Though he failed to deliver a win in his debut Grand National season, Pearson managed seven top-10 finishes (including three top-fives) and a single pole position, a performance good enough to earn him NASCAR Rookie of the Year honors.
His first victory in the series came in 1961, when Pearson sat in for driver Darel Dieringer at the World 600 at Charlotte in May. Driving a Ray Fox-built Pontiac for team owner John Masoni, Pearson qualified third, behind Joe Weatherly and polesitter Richard Petty. Following a late-race restart, Pearson and Petty were the only cars on the lead lap, and when Petty retired with a blown engine, it appeared that victory belonged to Pearson. With two laps to go, however, Pearson cut a tire on debris, giving Fireball Roberts a shot at a come-from-behind victory. Driving on a shredded tire for his last lap, Pearson held on for the win, his first of three during his sophomore season.
Pearson driving the Wood Brothers Mercury at Riverside in 1973. He started from the pole, but retired early with clutch failure, finishing 22nd. Photo courtesy Ford Motor Company.
At a time when the Grand National calendar often included 60 or more races, Pearson rarely ran a full season, which makes his achievements in the sport that much more impressive. Driving in just 12 of 52 events during the 1962 season – for five teams – Pearson still managed to finish 10th in points. The following year, driving primarily for Cotton Owens, he ran 41 of 55 races, finishing eighth, and in a near-full 1964 season (61 of 62 races), finished third.
NASCAR’s Hemi ban saw Pearson switch to drag racing for much of the 1965 season, but he returned with a new focus in 1966, winning 15 of 43 races to capture his first NASCAR championship for Owens Racing. He’d earn his second championship – this time driving for Holman-Moody – in 1968, and followed this up with his third and final championship (again, with Holman-Moody) in 1969.
Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, Pearson’s battles with Petty were the stuff of racing legend. In 63 races during this period, the duo finished first and second, with Pearson taking the victory 33 times to Petty’s 30. Pearson’s 105 NASCAR Cup Series victories puts him second only to Petty, who amassed 200 wins over his 35-year career.
Despite their on-track duels, Pearson and Petty were friends off the track, and in a statement released Monday night, Petty said,
I have always been asked who my toughest competitor in my career was. That answer has always been David Pearson. David and I raced together throughout our careers and battled each other for wins – most of the time finishing first or second to each other. It wasn’t a rivalry, but more mutual respect. David is a Hall of Fame driver who made me better. He pushed me just as much as I pushed him on the track. We both became better for it.
Pearson stepped away from racing after the 1986 season, though didn’t officially announce his retirement until 1989. In the years since, Pearson was named to the National Motor Sports Press Association Hall of Fame in 1991 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1993. In 1999, a panel of NASCAR experts selected by Sports Illustrated chose Pearson as the Top Stock Car Driver of the Twentieth Century, and he seemed a lock for the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class in 2010.
Instead, he lost out in voting to Bill France, Jr., but made the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011, its second year. As a testament to his humility, Pearson declared he would withdraw his name from consideration if pioneers from the sport’s early days – like owner Raymond Parks, and drivers Tim Flock and Lee Petty – were excluded because of his nomination. (They weren’t, and joined Pearson as inductees in 2011).
Pearson’s wife, Helen Ruth Pearson, died in 1991. He is survived by sons Larry, Ricky and Eddie.