Some say he was the greatest NASCAR driver of all time and some say he was one of the greatest and we could sit here all day and half the night arguing which statement comes closest to the truth.
David Pearson drew that sort of attention. His talent demanded it. His results on the track required it.
The list of such folks is a short one.
Pearson, a native son of Inman, S.C., died Monday. He was 83.
He hadn’t raced in NASCAR’s premier series since 1986 and then it was only two starts. Yet walk through the NASCAR garage today, more than 30 years later, and they’re still telling stories about the man known as the Silver Fox.
NASCAR in the 1960s and ‘70s belonged to Pearson and another racing legend, Richard Petty. Together they won nearly every race – or so it seemed – and 10 championships. They finished first and second 63 times – Pearson won 33, Petty 30. The first time came in 1963, the Sandlapper 200 at Columbia (S.C.) Speedway, the last at Riverside (Calif.) Raceway in ’77.
In between there was magic and memories and a nearly two-decades long history lesson.
Chief among those contests? The ’76 Daytona 500, long considered one of NASCAR’s greatest finishes. Pearson bested Petty in that one, their cars colliding and bouncing off the fourth turn wall before spinning along the frontstretch on the final lap. Both sliding through the infield grass and Pearson somehow nursing his bent and spent No. 21 back onto the banking and across the finish line ahead of Petty’s No. 43.
Pearson won three championships, the first in 1966 with Spartanburg, S.C., owner/driver Cotton Owens. In 1968 and ’69 he won two more while competing for the powerhouse Holman-Moody racing outfit.
Pearson was a three-time series champion two years before Petty won his third title.
His 105 wins remains second on the all-time win list, second only to Petty’s 200 and like Petty’s record, it’s a mark that likely won’t be topped.
Had he run for the championship more often, who knows how many wins and titles might have come his way?
His first victory came in the ’61 World 600, at the time perhaps the most grueling stock car test of them all. A year earlier he had won the series’ Rookie of the Year title, and a big reason for the honor was his 10th place finish in the 600; he was in second place when he had to stop and wire his car’s generator back on with a coat hanger.
Forty-three of his wins came while driving for the Wood Brothers. Folks with the organization that has had more than a few legends behind the wheel will tell you Pearson might have been the most talented of them all.
He won eight times at Daytona and 10 times at Darlington, where he was a three-time Southern 500 champ. He won on dirt and asphalt, short tracks and superspeedways and road courses.
He was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011 and that was only getting it half right. He deserved to be inducted a year sooner along with Petty and Dale Earnhardt and Junior Johnson when the doors to the Hall first opened.
He was the best of his time in the eyes of a lot of folks, maybe even the best of all time.
David Pearson may be gone now but memories of the man and what he accomplished will last forever.