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The best of the Southern stock-car drivers have always been tendered recognition as much for their eccentricities as for their ability behind the wheel of a 3,800-pound racing machine. There was Junior Johnson, who said "tars" for "tires," who also ran moonshine and raised chickens; Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts, who drove nearly as hard as they partied; Fred Lorenzen, the Northern interloper who set a precedent simply by driving with his head; Cale Yarborough, who drove like the all-state fullback he once was; and, of course, Richard Petty, who parlayed his family racing heritage into so many Grand National victories that nobody even counts them anymore.
So it comes as something of a shock when King Richard himself says, as he has been saying for years now, that phlegmatic David Gene Pearson is "the best driver NASCAR's got." Or when Glen Wood, the master car builder from the Virginia hills who currently employs Pearson, says, "I don't like to even talk about it, but I tell David all the time he's the best I've ever had." And Wood's list of former driving notables includes Yarborough, Turner, Lorenzen, Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones and A.J. Foyt. Or when Cotton Owens, ace mechanic and a stock-car Hall of Famer as a driver, says even more plainly, " David Pearson is the best stock-car driver ever."
Who is this David Pearson? For starters, he is now $8,840 richer than he was before last Sunday, which means he is just $4,710 away from becoming the second official millionaire in NASCAR history. In the Talladega 500 at the Alabama International Motor Speedway, a lonely 2.66-mile outpost somewhere east of Birmingham, Pearson finished third, a respectable position in the midst of the most consistent performance in the history of his sport. He has pursued car owner Glen Wood's dictum of "race less and win more" to near-perfection, having won nine of the 11 races he entered this year. He already has set a season record for superspeedway wins—eight—with a full third of the season remaining. As a bonus, his two-year record in the Wood Brothers Mercury reads 15 victories in 27 starts, beginning with their first race together in the Rebel 400 at Darlington, S.C. in April 1972. David Pearson is a racer's racer.
The figures are noteworthy by themselves, but Pearson's 1973 record is more impressive considering the manner in which he achieved it. There have been streaky performances in racing before, most notably Foyt's 10 USAC victories in 1964, Jimmy Clark's five consecutive Grand Prix triumphs in 1965, Team McLaren's dominance of Can-Am racing from 1966 to 1971, and Petty's own NASCAR monument—10 straight wins on all sorts of tracks in 1967. But in all cases the cars involved were admittedly superior to those of the opposition. Such is not the case with Pearson, at least not on paper.
Before Talladega, Pearson had won by as much as 13 laps (the Rebel 500 at Darlington) and by as little as one second (the Motor State 400 at Michigan), and were it not for a 1.8-second loss to Buddy Baker at the World 600 at Charlotte in May, he would have gone into Talladega a perfect 10 for 10. He has led almost from start to finish (the Carolina 500 at Rockingham, N.C.) but at other times has been content to lay off the pace and wait for the opposition to fold, as he did last week. "There's no point in Davey being reckless in a race when he knows our pit work can get him back out on the track at least even," said Wood. "We've changed two tires and refueled in 14 or 15 seconds many times."
When necessary, Pearson has fought viciously for his wins, laying to rest a long-standing charge that he didn't run hard if his car was not exactly right. In his one short-track win of the streak, at a flat half-mile oval in Martinsville, Va., he engaged in a marvelous late-race duel with Yarborough that would have done Johnson or Turner or any of the other old fender-busting Rebels proud.
So Pearson has won every way possible and the accolades, which in retrospect are long overdue, are finally his. That $4,710 is mere pocket money; he now seems sure to join the elite ranks of the half-dozen drivers whose official career earnings in major-league racing exceed $1 million (the others: Petty, USAC's Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al Unser and Mark Donohue). The whole thing has not turned his head a bit; if anything, he's slightly embarrassed by all the fuss.
Gene Granger, a Spartanburg newspaperman and a close friend, said, "I know it sounds corny, but David's just folks. He doesn't really know he belongs. He's just as happy on the sidelines letting other people get the spotlight, and he honestly doesn't believe he deserves to be called one of the best drivers ever."
In his No. 21 Mercury, Pearson's shyness gives way to a relaxed coolness that has occasionally been mistaken for indifference. His is the only NASCAR racer with a working cigarette lighter, the better to nurse his two-pack-a-day habit, even under the green light, and he often jokes that the Wood Brothers' fast pit work doesn't give him time to light up.
Coolness was not always Pearson's most obvious trait. He grew up poor in Spartanburg, and today lives in an unpretentious house not far from the Whitney Mill, where both his parents worked and where David himself put in a three-month stint many years ago. Spartanburg, then as now, was a hotbed of stock-car racing. "I knew the first time I saw a race I wanted to drive cars," Pearson said, "but I can't even remember what kind of race it was I saw. Jalopy, I guess."