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David Pearson: A superhero in plain clothes

Marty Snider, Kim Coon, and Dave Burns break down Denny Hamlin's last-lap pass on Kyle Larson at Kansas Speedway that resulted in the first win of the season for the No. 11 and cost the No. 5 team another victory.

Talladega Superspeedway garage area, August 1976. Three reporters are walking past the line of Cup Series team trucks. David Pearson, sitting on the back of one of them, yells, “Hey, are you guys tired of writing about me?”

“No,” one said. “Give us another reason.”

Pearson laughed.

On race weekends, Pearson often could be spotted in the garage area hanging out with pals or discussing world problems with other drivers. Unlike his biggest foe (and friend) Richard Petty, he wasn’t a media magnet. Petty drew sports writers (and fans) like sugar draws flies. On a slow news day, a casual garage interview with Petty about nothing in particular could fill a notebook.

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It wasn’t that Pearson didn’t like reporters. Some got quite close to him over the years. But, in some ways, he was the opposite of Petty. He wasn’t known to expound on topics, and he generally didn’t cultivate relationships with media. In short, he was a small-town South Carolina boy who made it big but didn’t necessarily want to talk about it all the time.

As Pearson noted that Talladega day, however, it became necessary to engage the man who would become known as the “Silver Fox” for his on-track smarts and the gray that colored his black hair long before he reached “gray” age.

Pearson won three Cup championships in the late 1960s, but the 1970s were his golden age. NASCAR titles weren’t a hot topic across the country when Pearson won with the Holman-Moody team, but stock car racing was gaining traction in the 1970s as the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. jumped into the sport with coins and clout. By 1972, Pearson had moved on to the Wood Brothers team and its No. 21 cars, and magic was about to happen.

They won six races in 1972, but that was merely a prelude to 1973, when Pearson raced 18 times and won 11. The Woods were more than happy to run a limited schedule with Pearson as they cherry-picked big-money events and left town with the big checks.

Pearson won 10 races in 22 appearances in 1976. He won the Daytona 500 after the famous last-lap crash with Petty, and by the time the season’s second Talladega race rolled around in the heat of August, he had won seven times in 13 races.

Reporters were running out of angles to explore with the sometimes reticent Pearson, who would travel to New York City after the season to pick up the prestigious American Driver of the Year Award and a big check at – appropriately – the 21 Club. It was a good Christmas for the Pearson family.

David Pearson and Richard Petty

UNKNOWN: David Pearson (L) and Richard Petty. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group

“David was very quiet,” Donnie Allison told NBC Sports. “He was as good a driver as we had. He was extremely intelligent but also very patient. Off the track, he liked his private life. He wasn’t very vocal no matter what happened. He kept to himself a lot.

“Bobby (Allison, Donnie’s older brother) and I were talking about David once. While Bobby and Richard Petty beat each other’s fenders, David hung around and won the race.”

Len Wood was the second generation of the Wood family to work with Pearson. His father, Glen, and uncle, Leonard, brought Pearson on board with the 21 team. Eventually, Len and his brother Eddie took over operation of the team, inheriting one of the best drivers in the history of the sport.

Across the years, they enjoyed win after win with Pearson, exchanging stories and tall tales with him and occasionally trying to outsmart him with a prank or joke. That never worked, according to Eddie Wood. Pearson always won – even off track.

“His on-track abilities spoke for themselves,” Len Wood said of Pearson’s nature. “He would rather win than be the one seeking out commercials or to be a star. I don’t think he intended to be a star. But he was good, and he wanted everybody to see that.

“I use Richard Petty as the standard against which we all are judged. He would stand around after a race and sign 500 autographs. Pearson would be on his way home. Like Dale Earnhardt Sr., when a race was over if you beat him out of the gate you had done something.

“I don’t think he needed the limelight. The last 10 laps of a race – that was his time.”

David Pearson and Leonard Wood

1970s: Driver David Pearson chats with his chief mechanic Leonard Wood in the garage area at a NASCAR Cup race in the 1970s. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group

Tim Brewer, a long-time NASCAR crew chief who has been nominated for the Hall of Fame, matched wits with Pearson and the Woods.

“There was nobody smarter, nobody tougher,” Brewer told NBC Sports. “He would race for 100 miles, ride for 300 miles, then in the last 100 miles he was going to kick your ass. He would let somebody else lead until it was time to get paid.”

Pearson rarely had conflicts with other drivers, but he didn’t back away from challenges. Tim Richmond, a young upstart who jumped into the sport in the early 1980s as Pearson’s career was winding down, made the mistake of tangling with Pearson one day in Daytona.

Brewer was Richmond’s crew chief when, during an apparent on-track disagreement, Richmond saluted Pearson with a middle finger.

“Richmond called me on the radio and said, ‘What kind of trouble am I going to be in? I stuck my finger at Pearson,’ ” Brewer said. “I said, ‘You don’t stick your finger at David Pearson. He’ll whip your ass.’

“After the race, I see Pearson on pit road. He said, ‘Brewer, you ought to do something about that ... Richmond. He stuck his figure at me. He’s over there in front of the truck. I slapped him.’

“I walked over there, and Richmond is sitting there. He had a handprint across his face. ‘What did he do?’ I asked him. He looked up and said, ‘He hit me.’ ”

Richmond and Pearson never had another issue.

Pearson died in 2018, almost 30 years after he retired from driving. The line that is engraved on his crypt in a cemetery in his hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina captures his life in, appropriately enough, a quiet way. It reads: Simply The Best.