David Pearson, the Silver Fox, was as smooth as polished steel.
He drove a race car like a bandit, always in the shadows until you least expected it, and then he’d put that No. 21 Wood Brothers bullet in Richard Petty’s mirror and the sport itself would hold its breath.
We never wanted to exhale.
Some say he was the greatest driver to ever sit behind the wheel of a stock car, and some say he was the second-greatest. Petty himself went back and forth on it. But one thing is certain.
Pearson and Petty were the reason we loved NASCAR racing, the reason we left church on Sundays and ran to the car to listen to the start of the race and held our breath all afternoon waiting for the finish, waiting for the only two giants of the sport to come off the fourth turn of the final lap, risking everything just to cross under the checkered flag before the other.
He beat Petty to the flag one last time today. David Pearson, 83, has died.
The history of sports in the South includes great contests on grass and planks and asphalt, final-round charges and last-second shots from Arnold and Jack and Pistol Pete, people we knew by their first names, great moments frozen in time with legends like Dean Smith and Bear Bryant, black and white newspaper clippings from Augusta National and Cameron Indoor Stadium.
But for much of the South, the very essence of sports itself was Petty and Pearson coming off the fourth turn at Daytona in 1976, colliding and spinning in the frontstretch, the 43 grinding to a stop in the grass and the 21 hobbling to the line, smoke pouring from under the crumpled hood of a Mercury while we watched without breathing the greatest moment in stock-car racing history.
And to many of us, the greatest moment in all of sports.
Pearson would win 105 races in his long career, second only to Petty’s 200, a career mark that left him far short of the King but in a realm of his own. And that was just fine with Pearson.
He had no interest in chasing win totals or championships. He would win three titles of his own, smack dab in the middle of Petty’s dominance in the late '60s, only to scale back his schedule, racing when he wanted to instead of grinding it out week after week.
Pearson entered only 19 races in 1974, but he won seven times, finished in the top five 15 times and won 11 poles. He finished third in the Cup standings behind Petty and Cale Yarborough that year, but there are those who consider it his greatest season. Some consider it the greatest season any stock-car driver ever had.
He didn’t care one way or the other.
Pearson was a soft-spoken Southern gentleman in a sport of brash loudmouth boys, a South Carolina native whom everyone said was from Spartanburg. He was from Inman, a little town just outside of Spartanburg, and he pointed that out to people when they got it wrong.
But he never made a big deal of it. Pearson made his point without making a big deal of anything.
In 2010, the first five inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame were announced. Pearson was not one of the chosen. As the names were called that day in downtown Charlotte, he stood and quietly walked out of the building.
He was a proud but humble man who deserved to be in the inaugural class along with Petty. He knew it, and everybody else there that day knew it.
But he didn’t make a big deal of it.
Pearson was never given the credit he deserved, a superstar who didn’t want the spotlight, a famous man who didn’t need the fame.
He is destined to be second all-time in NASCAR wins, second all-time to his greatest rival, a fox in the shadow of a king.
Petty said he never minded losing to Pearson.
“I knew how good he was,” he said.
Pearson said the same thing about Petty.
They would finish first-and-second 63 times, Pearson holding a slight edge in those races.
They were the greatest races of our time, the greatest era in stock-car racing history, when time stood still and David Pearson was as big of a deal as we’ve ever known.