News & Media

Aumann: Silver Fox rides again

May 10, 2012, Mark Aumann,

David Pearson comes out of retirement in 1980 to nab win at favorite track

David Pearson left his job as a roofer to win his first Cup race. He left retirement to win the last of his 105 victories in the 1980 CRC Chemicals Rebel 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Pearson was a fresh-faced 26-year-old who was about to give up on making a career as a full-time race driver when he was called on to replace Junior Johnson at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the 1961 World 600 -- which he won despite finishing the race on just three wheels.

"It seemed like everything that happened [at Darlington] was on the other end of the speedway. Everything went our way. For the first time in Hoss' car, it makes me feel good to win in it."


Over the next two decades, Pearson became a household name: winning three championships and more than 100 races, including nine at Darlington. He had an amazing run of success with the Wood Brothers, winning 43 races with that team over an eight-year span beginning in 1972. But he found himself out of a job after a pit road miscue in the spring 500-miler at Darlington in 1979.

With less than 70 laps remaining, Pearson came in for service. Thinking the crew was only going to change right-side tires, Pearson waited for the jack to drop, then took off. However, it was a four-tire change -- and the lugnuts on both left-side tires had already been loosened. When Pearson got to the exit of the pits, the wheels came off, literally.

Rod Osterlund gave Pearson a four-race deal to fill in for the injured Dale Earnhardt later in the season -- and Pearson exacted a bit of revenge by winning the 1979 Southern 500. However, Pearson found himself without a ride and contemplating retirement from the sport when the 1980 season got under way.

And he might have stayed away if not for Hoss Ellington, who owned the No. 1 Chevrolet and needed a replacement driver once he released Donnie Allison after a disappointing 26th-place finish at Atlanta two weeks previously. Ellington figured there was nobody who knew Darlington better than Pearson -- and he turned out to be right. The two agreed on a deal 10 days before the race, and Pearson climbed into the car for the first time during practice.

It took no time at all to shake off the rust. Pearson qualified on the front row next to Benny Parsons, just a tick slower than Parsons' pole-winning run of 155.866 mph. Still, the idea that a part-time driver might win in a part-time ride -- even if it was the Silver Fox -- seemed a bit presumptuous.

But, on race day, fate began to intervene.

First, Ricky Rudd collided with Richard Petty almost immediately after the green flag dropped, setting off a chain-reaction accident that wiped out many of the top contenders just one turn into the race.

Petty lost several laps in the pits while the team tore away damaged sheet metal and repaired the rollcage. Buddy Baker wound up parked in the garage after seven laps. And Neil Bonnett, driving the Wood Brothers No. 21 Mercury, never made it back to the start/finish line after his car was pinned against the wall.

Soon, engine issues sidelined Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt and Cale Yarborough, leaving a three-car battle at the front between Parsons, Pearson and Darrell Waltrip.

Then, heavy rain and hail not only delayed the race for more than two hours, but also was another factor that played in Pearson's favor. It washed away the accumulated rubber, which gave Pearson a handling advantage. It affected Waltrip's engine, because it suddenly began running on only seven cylinders and stayed that way for the rest of the event. And it gave the just unretired driver a nice mid-race break.

"I got a chance to rest and got a bite to eat," Pearson said.

When the race resumed, Pearson steadily chased down Parsons. He got by on Lap 157 and led the final 32 laps before the race was called because of darkness just six laps past the halfway mark. It was Pearson's seventh victory in the Darlington spring race.

Parsons finished second, 3.3 seconds behind, followed by Harry Gant, who remained in his car for the entire rain delay in order to avoid irritating his bruised ribs. Waltrip was able to soldier on for fourth.

"It seemed like everything that happened was on the other end of the speedway," Pearson said in his post-race comments. "Everything went our way. For the first time in Hoss' car, it makes me feel good to win in it."

Pearson and Ellington nearly pulled off another surprise victory when the series returned to Darlington that fall. He was leading Earnhardt and Parsons when the top three cars all hit oil from Frank Warren's blown engine on the next-to-last lap. All three crashed, but Pearson kept his wrecked car moving. However, Terry Labonte -- running fourth -- avoided trouble and was able to chase down Pearson as they raced back to the caution, beating the Silver Fox to the line by the width of his front fender to score his first Cup win.