David Pearson, a three-time champion in NASCAR’s premier series widely regarded as one of the sport’s finest drivers, died Monday. He was 83.
Pearson was welcomed into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011 as the top vote-getter in the shrine’s second induction class. His cause of death is unknown at this time. His family had reported that Pearson suffered a stroke in December 2014.
Nicknamed “The Silver Fox” in a nod to both his late-race guile and prematurely gray hair, Pearson won 105 races in NASCAR’s top division, placing him second only to Richard Petty’s 200 victories on the all-time list. Perhaps more remarkably, Pearson never competed in a full season and his win total came in 574 starts — less than half of Petty’s 1,184.
In a Sports Illustrated poll in 1999, a panel of 40 longtime experts in the sport voted Pearson as the magazine’s NASCAR Driver of the Century. The 1976 Daytona 500 winner was named one of the sport’s 50 Greatest Drivers during NASCAR’s 50th anniversary season in 1998.
“David Pearson’s 105 NASCAR premier series victories and his classic rivalry in the 1960s and ’70s with Richard Petty helped set the stage for NASCAR’s transformation into a mainstream sport with national appeal,” NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France said in a statement. “When he retired, he had three championships — and millions of fans. Richard Petty called him the greatest driver he ever raced against. We were lucky to be able to call him one of our champions. The man they called the ‘Silver Fox’ was the gold standard for NASCAR excellence.
“On behalf of the France Family and everyone at NASCAR, I want to offer sincere condolences to the family and friends of David Pearson, a true giant of our sport.”
RELATED: David Pearson through the years
Born David Gene Pearson on Dec. 22, 1934, near his longtime hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina, his first racing experience came in the Palmetto State’s thriving dirt-track circles. Pearson said he bought his first car at age 17. His progress on his home state’s bullrings soon caught the eyes of several car owners, moving him up the ranks to big-league stock-car racing.
Pearson’s career in NASCAR’s premier series began in 1960. Though he ran just half of the 44 races, he netted the first of his 113 career pole positions and was named Rookie of the Year.
Pearson’s career arc accelerated in 1961, when he teamed with master crew chief Ray Fox for three victories — two at Charlotte, one at Daytona — in his second season. His first victory came in spectacular fashion in just the second-ever World 600 — now the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Bearing down on the white flag, his John Masoni-owned No. 3 Pontiac blew a right-rear tire. Pearson limped home with sparks flying from the wheel rim for the final lap and a half to take the checkered flag and the lucrative $29,450 purse.
From there, Pearson drove for a succession of powerhouse teams with Hall of Fame credentials — Cotton Owens, Holman-Moody and the Wood Brothers. He also raced for Hall of Famer Bud Moore in Mustangs prepared for the Trans Am Series in its glory years.
“I’m just a plain ol’ country boy, what you want to call it,” Pearson said as he was introduced for his NASCAR Hall induction. “That’s the way I was raised and brought up to be. Racing has been good to me and I owe everything I got to racing.”
Pearson won 15 of 42 premier series races in 1966 to score his first championship with Owens, a NASCAR Hall inductee in 2013. Another prolific stretch the next five seasons with Holman-Moody brought back-to-back series titles in 1968-69, cementing his legacy as a savvy race strategist as the sport moved toward longer races on bigger speedways.
Lee Holman, the son of team co-founder John Holman, told NASCAR.com in 2014: “With Pearson, they used to say with about four laps to go, he’d throw his cigarette out the window and you’d better hold on, because the race was about to happen.”
Hall of Famer Leonard Wood, his crew chief from 1972-79 in his family team’s famed No. 21, told USA Today in 2015: “He could sense what was going to happen and be ready for it. A lot of drivers drive no further than the end of the hood and don’t see the danger ahead of them. He could figure out a lap ahead where drivers were going to be and what kind of trouble they were about to get in.”
Pearson, admittedly bashful with the media, was typically plain-spoken and simply focused on driving cars. But he also hid his cool and calm demeanor behind sunglasses, often conducting his short Victory Lane interviews in the car with a still-dangling cigarette — a habit he later kicked, but one that was in full swing during his racing days thanks to the dashboard lighter he kept handy.
Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Jim Murray captured Pearson as the picture of stock-car racing in the 1970s, writing in a column before the 1974 season finale: “David Gene Pearson is a good old country boy who’s been looking down that lonesome road in a stock Mercury ever since he escaped the cotton mills 20 years ago. He doesn’t eat cheese with holes in it or toast with fish eggs on it or birds under glass and he don’t drive none of those la-de-da cars that come with a monocle attached. There ain’t no marquises or counts in the races David drives in.”
Pearson will forever be linked with Petty, a seven-time champion and one of his biggest rivals. Throughout the 1970s, their car numbers — 21 for Pearson and 43 for Petty — were often atop the scoring pylon. The two drivers finished 1-2 in the premier series 63 times, with Pearson winning 33.
Petty told ESPN’s Ed Hinton in 2009: “Pearson could beat you on a short track, he could beat you on a superspeedway, he could beat you on a road course, he could beat you on a dirt track. It didn’t hurt as bad to lose to Pearson as it did to some of the others, because I knew how good he was.”
They were never more closely intertwined than the 1976 Daytona 500, one of NASCAR’s most memorable finishes. After some feverish dicing in the final lap, Pearson and Petty crashed exiting the final turn within sight of the checkered flag. Both cars absorbed heavy damage against the outside retaining wall, but Pearson was able to keep his Mercury running as both slid to the tri-oval grass.
“Seems like everywhere we go, when it comes down to the last lap, it’s me and Richard,” Pearson told the Associated Press after he crept across the start-finish line at low speed for his only victory in The Great American Race. “Of all those times, I’ll guarantee you this was the strangest.”
Pearson’s victory tally with the Wood Brothers totaled 43. Their successful association ended abruptly in April 1979 at Darlington Raceway, his hometown track where he won 10 times — a record that still stands.
“I have always been asked who my toughest competitor in my career was,” Petty said in a statement hours after Pearson’s death was announced. “The 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.
“We have always been close to the Pearson family because they were in the racing business, just like us. We stayed close, and I enjoyed visits to see David when going through South Carolina. We will miss those trips. Our thoughts and prayers are with the entire Pearson family and friends.”
Pearson prepared to leave pit road after the Wood Brothers changed right-side tires, not knowing that the well-choreographed pit crew had already loosened the left-side lug nuts in preparation for a four-tire stop. Leonard Wood said “Whoa! Whoa!” over the radio. Pearson heard, “Go! Go!” The No. 21 lurched and made it to the end of pit road before scraping to a halt on two tires. The two sides parted ways the following week.
After leaving the Wood Brothers, Pearson won two more races — both at Darlington, one for car owner Rod Osterlund in 1979 and one for Hoss Ellington the following season. He continued in the series, running less than half the schedule until making his final start — a 10th-place effort at Michigan — in 1986.
After a three-year hiatus, Pearson attempted a comeback with the Wood Brothers as a substitute driver for the injured Neil Bonnett. After a day of testing, the 54-year-old Pearson said he woke up the following morning with soreness and decided that he would end his racing career on Sept. 27, 1989.
“I left the track Tuesday with every intention of running the race,” Pearson said in a conference call with reporters. “The car ran and drove great, and I really wanted to run. But my back and neck hurt so much when I woke up this morning that I knew I couldn’t run a 500-mile race and do justice to myself and the Wood Brothers. Knowing I couldn’t run the car as good as it was, I realized that I can’t run any time. So I guess this is my official retirement from driving.”
Fittingly, Petty presented Pearson for induction in the NASCAR Hall, just a few days after they shared some playful banter about who shouldered the blame for their collision in the final lap of the 1976 Daytona 500. After sharing his own genuine appreciation, Pearson joked right back in his acceptance speech.
“He’s probably the one that made me win as many as I did,” Pearson said. “I ran hard because he’d make me run hard. Sometimes he’d make a mistake and I’d pass him. Of course, I didn’t ever make no mistakes. I always accused him of having big engines when he passed me.
“But he’s a good sport, and I’m telling you, I’ve had more fun running with him than anyone I’ve ever run with because I know if I ever went to a race track and he was there, if I could beat him, I’d win the race.”