Work in Sports
SI Flashback: Greatest Daytona 500?
In the '76 race, Richard Petty and David Pearson put a fresh spin on NASCAR's most celebrated rivalry
Even when viewed through fuzzy two-decade-old videotapes or the sequential photographs that illustrate many an archival page, the 1976 Daytona 500 remains the greatest of all NASCAR races. Unforgettable are the images of Richard Petty and David Pearson, their fabled 43 and 21 flying down the backstretch on the final lap, passing and repassing each other through Turns 3 and 4, then a wreck, then another, and finally Pearson limping home first, at about 10 miles an hour.
But what qualifies Daytona '76 for greatness is the intensity of the competition that existed between those two soft-spoken men even before the race. Their relationship was too strong, too deep, too old to be described simply as a rivalry. And so in those days it wasn't, but was referred to rather as "Petty and Pearson," "PettyPearson" or, less often, "PearsonPetty." Fifty-seven times in the previous 13 seasons the two had finished one-two in NASCAR races, with Pearson winning 29 of those duels. "What could be more beautiful," NASCAR's journalist laureate, Bill Robinson, had once asked, "than Petty and Pearson, side by side, flat out and belly to the ground, racing toward a hurrying sundown?"
And they didn't have to finish one-two for whatever it was between them to boil and froth. In the previous Daytona 500, Petty, running eight laps down in the race's waning moments, had towed underdog Benny Parsons in his draft to within striking distance of leader Pearson. By the time Cale Yarborough and Richie Panch had forced Pearson to spin on the backstretch, Parsons was right there to pass and win, courtesy of Petty.
Going into that balmy February afternoon in 1976, Petty had won five Daytona 500s and Pearson had won none. Yet Pearson's victory that day would be so gutsy that when Petty looked back some 20 years later on his magnificent career, one that included seven Daytona 500 victories and 200 NASCAR wins overall, he could only sigh and say, "But the race I'll be remembered most for--and the one I'll remember most myself--was one I lost."
Not long remembered, but much noted at the time, was that the PettyPearson climax cleansed an especially nasty Speed Week. A week before the race, the top three qualifiers had their times disallowed because of cheating. A.J. Foyt had his pole-winning speed of 187.477 mph thrown out after NASCAR officials found sufficient evidence of the use of nitrous oxide--the "laughing gas" that dentists had used for decades--to enhance the combustion on Foyt's Chevy during his qualifying run. Fiery young Darrell Waltrip, the second fastest, was next to be disqualified, after he admitted to concealing his own nitrous oxide bottle. Dave Marcis, the third fastest, was disqualified because of an illegal blockage of his radiator (intended to increase downforce and engine temperature) by his top mechanic, Harry Hyde, who 14 years later would be portrayed by Robert Duvall as the craftiest crew chief of them all, Harry Hogge, in the film Days of Thunder.
Foyt, in particular, was furious over the disqualifications. At one point, he was seen angrily lecturing NASCAR president Bill France Jr. Things got so ugly in the garage area that former NASCAR czar Bill France Sr., who had retired four years earlier, had to be called in to restore order. "[George] Wallace told me to make sure all these sonsabitches are legal by the time he gets here," the elder France said of the Alabama governor, his longtime friend who was to serve as grand marshal of the race, "and I'm gonna do just that. Right now."
Ten minutes later, the old man emerged from behind closed doors with his arm around the neck of a suddenly compliant Foyt, who was saying softly, "Yessir...yessir...yessir."
A bean farmer from Keokuk, Iowa, named Ramo Stott inherited the pole for the Daytona 500, though the three offenders were allowed to requalify. None of them, however, held up long against PettyPearson. Indeed, PettyPearson it was--bumper to bumper, Petty leading, Pearson stalking--for the 12 laps that preceded the white flag. But not a soul among the 125,000 present that afternoon doubted what would happen soon after the duo saw the white. The slingshot pass was, in those days of unrestricted engines and bulky body styles, pure and irresistible: The second-place car simply pulled out into the tremendous wash of air the lead car was creating, got an enormous aerodynamic kick in the ass and passed the helpless leader.
Pearson executed it perfectly as they entered Turn 3. But nobody could have predicted what happened next. Only Petty saw the split-second opening when Pearson drifted slightly high in 3, and Petty shot low to retake the lead. Through Turn 4, Petty had pulled ahead by half a car length. But as PettyPearson exited the turn, Petty drifted high, the right rear of his Dodge catching the left front of Pearson's Mercury and turning it nose-first into the wall. The Dodge fishtailed for perhaps 200 yards down the frontstretch, and then "I overcorrected," Petty would say of his own turn head-on into the wall.
Even as Pearson hit the wall head-on, he rammed in the clutch, revving his engine in a last-ditch effort to keep it running. Petty had ignored his clutch pedal as his car bounced off the wall and slid, its engine dying, into the grassy infield 50 yards short of the finish line. As Petty struggled to restart the Dodge, the smashed Mercury lumbered past and took the checkered flag. Petty's crew illegally pushed his car across the line, then swarmed Pearson's wreckage, looking for a fight until Petty climbed out of his car and restrained them. "If you want to blame somebody," he said, "blame me."
Sixteen months later, at Riverside, Calif., on June 12, 1977, the PettyPearson quinella would come in for the 63rd and final time, with Petty winning for the 30th time. There has been nothing in NASCAR to rival PettyPearson since. And there was nothing quite like PearsonPetty, Feb. 15, 1976. It was the greatest race, to end the damnedest Speed Week, in NASCAR history.
January 28, 1998: Special Collector's Issue / 50 Years of NASCAR 1948-1998