Known as the “Silver Fox” due to his sly and patient racing manner, Spartanburg, South Carolina’s David Pearson (December 22, 1932) was “a plain ol’ country boy” who won 105 NASCAR Cup Series races. Although he only ran a full NASCAR Cup Series schedule on three occasions, he won the championship each time (1966 & 1968-1969).
As a kid, Pearson climbed a tree to watch the Stock Car races on the Spartanburg Fair-grounds. In 1952, he started winning races in his 1940 Ford coupe and later in his 1937 Ford sedan. After developing his considerable skills on the Carolina short tracks, he won the 1959 track championship at the then-half-mile-dirt Greenville-Pickens (S.C.) Speedway.
In 1960, Pearson began to race in NASCAR’s top series and in his first Daytona 500 he finished 38th in his No. 67 1959 Chevrolet that he bought from Jack Smith. He only ran in 22 events that season – with his best effort winning the pole and finishing second at the quarter-mile dirt Gamecock Speedway in Sumter, South Carolina – but he was named “Rookie of the Year.”
In 1961, Pearson got a ride in the Ray Fox-prepared white No. 3 Pontiac and qualified third fastest behind fellow EMPA Hall of Famer Richard Petty and veteran Joe Weatherly for the inaugural World 600 on May 28 at the 1.5-mile Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway. It was in this race where Pearson and Petty had the first of their legendary duels with Pearson taking the checkered flag after Petty’s engine blew with 89 laps to go.
He then got a bit more national TV exposure on “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” when he was seen winning the July 3 Firecracker 250 from the pole at Daytona International Speedway – the first of his five wins (1961, 1972-1974 & 1978) in the Fourth of July event.
Pearson – who only wished to race when everything was ready for him to win – was driving Cotton Owens’ red and white No. 6 Dodge (1962-1967) when NASCAR banned the Chrysler Hemi engine in 1965. So he and fellow MOPAR factory driver Petty went drag racing in Hemi-powered cars – Pearson in the yellow “Cotton Picker” Dodge Dart station wagon and Petty in the Petty Blue “Outlawed/43 Jr.” Barracuda – until NASCAR lifted the ban. Then in 1966 Pearson triumphed in 15 races with his Hemi Dodge and won his first Cup Series title.
In 1967-1968, Pearson had four wins and a second-place finish in five TransAm-style events with Bud Moore’s No. 15 Mercury Cougar. Then, from 1967-1971, he drove the blue and gold No. 17 Holman-Moody Fords to two Cup Series titles before he joined the Wood Brothers.
Pearson won 43 races with the Wood Brothers in 143 starts (1972-1979). He also won 51 poles in the red and white No. 21 Mercury which had a cigarette lighter on its dash for his convenience – that included 11 straight poles at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Plus, in 1973, even though he only competed in 18 of 28 Cup races he put the Purolator-sponsored entry into Victory Lane 11 times for a 61-percent winning average, the highest in NASCAR history.
Pearson’s most famous win, though, was the 1976 Daytona 500 where he and Petty tangled in their run for the checkered flag. When the smoke cleared, Pearson was able to get his crippled No. 21 across the finish line ahead of Petty’s badly damaged No. 43 Plymouth.
Petty has said Pearson was the best racer that he ever competed against and their classic battles made the fans come out to see them. In all, Pearson and Petty – two of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers – accounted for 62 1-2 finishes, with the edge going to Pearson, 33 to 29.
When David Pearson ended his career in 1986 after 547 starts he had: 44 superspeedway wins, with 10 at Darlington; 113 poles, with 64 on superspeedways and 14 at Charlotte; and at least one Top-10 finish in each of his 27 seasons.
Interestingly enough, some 20 years after he retired he thought he’d like to try a bit of racing again so he built a dirt-track Late Model and won all 14 of the races that he entered.