Pearson grew up in
Spartanburg, S.C.—where he still lives—began racing automobiles in 1955 and by
1960 was Rookie of the Year in his first Grand National car. He rolled on to
win the NASCAR driving championship three times, and when Glen Wood gave him a
new ride this spring, he won four Superspeedway events in a little under three
months—and nearly $70,000 in prize money. The sudden result: Pearson is second
only to Richard Petty in career victories, 64 to 144, and second on the alltime
money list, $772,000 to $1,275,000.
big three—Petty, Pearson and Bobby Allison—have all but taken over the record
book and the stock car purse strings in the past 30 months. Starting in early
1970 the three have won $1,305,000 in prize money and 28 of the 50 major races.
This year alone they have accounted for nine of the 14 big races, and 15 of 20
Allison is the
most combative of the trio. As he assesses things: "I think Petty and
Pearson are more like each other than they are like me. Although Petty has run
some good races recently, he tends to run strong only if it's his day. Same
with Pearson. I'm more of a fighter; I don't feel like a race is over until
that checkered flag drops."
Allison also is a
compulsive racer. He started 98 events last year. Occasionally he has scheduled
six races in one week. He raced—unsuccessfully—in Birmingham, Ala. two nights
before the Dixie 500, then flew back to Birmingham the next day to oversee a
country and western show he was helping to promote at that track.
" Allison's hungrier, and that's helped him. Pearson is more of the old
school. He can jump into anything and go—hard suspension, soft suspension,
uncomfortable seat. It doesn't seem to make too much difference."
Race week itself
also was a study in contrasts. On Wednesday night the drivers were invited to
the mansion of Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter to sip sherry; two days later
journeyman driver Neil (Soapy) Castles decked a newspaper reporter who inquired
too closely about his arrest record for traffic violations. And during the
whole time NASCAR technical inspectors and the assembled mechanics conducted
their weekly cheater game—this time centered around the long-disputed
carburetor regulations that limit the air flow to keep the fuel mix lean and
the speeds down, and the rake, or tilt, of the cars. Chief Technical Director
Bill Gazaway disallowed a time-trial run by James Hylton because of an illegal
carburetor, and the matter of rake threatened to send just about everybody
packing. A stock car is supposed to carry a relatively horizontal stance, since
that is the way it comes from the showroom. But since speeds go up when the
nose points down, through what one mechanic calls "Indian tricks," the
cars often assume mysterious angles once they are on the track. Just as
mysteriously, a few even manage to level themselves again when they return from
the track for another inspection.
Still, all of that
was mostly fun and games, for NASCAR has yet to disqualify the winner of a
major race on technical grounds, and the fireworks didn't really start until
Sunday afternoon when the 40-car field stumbled and belched to life beneath a
steaming sky that kept drivers and fans sweltering in 90� temperatures.
Rolling fast out
of his pole position, Pearson totally dominated the first 230 laps, running
easily and right up front. It appeared almost certain that he was headed for
season victory No. 5.
Then, with the
race down to 95 laps (about 143 miles to go), car owner Glen Wood bet on the
weather. He lost the bet, and the race. It happened like this. A rain
shower—the second of the afternoon—brought out the fifth yellow caution flag of
the race. Under NASCAR rules, if the race is stopped by weather, the leader on
the track is declared the winner, Bobby Allison and Petty, the only other
drivers in contention, pitted immediately, leaving the lead with Pearson.
held out as long as he dared, hoping the storm would end the race. He did not
call Pearson in for his final fuel stop until just before the field was ready
to resume racing under the green. The big storm did not come, and the stop cost
Pearson half a lap. Then he slowed with a sick engine and finally finished
third. Allison, meanwhile, running in the 130s, slowly built his margin over
Petty in the final laps to almost 12 seconds.