In Memoriam: David Pearson – The Best Stock Car Driver Ever

I only followed stock car racing somewhat peripherally back when it was a lot more interesting. But in the summer of 1965, I became very aware of the fact that a certain David Pearson was tearing up the classic short dirt tracks in a 1965 Dodge Coronet and virtually unbeatable. The combination of the make and model of his steed being the same as our family chariot, and the glowing praise heaped on him by the writers that followed the NASCAR season sucked me in. I was suddenly a David Pearson fan. And in my intermittent following of NASCAR in subsequent years, whenever I happened to catch him in action, I was rarely let down.

He even took that Coronet up to Pikes Peak, where he looks like he’s having fun, as usual. Pearson, who just passed away at 83, was always cool and collected, and typically bided his time to make his move.  But when he did, it was almost invariably successful. That’s why he was named The Silver Fox. Pearson was second behind Richard Petty with 105 wins to Petty’s 200, but Pearson had a higher winning average. Here’s a video below of one of his most memorable wins over Petty, at the 1974 Firecracker 400, the result of an incredibly bold gamble when he was already solidly in the lead, to back off and give it to Petty. Temporarily.

At 1:10, Pearson clearly backs off to let Petty, who was drafting him, go flying by, and Petty soon has a five car-length lead on Pearson in the back stretch. But Pearson closes the gap, then drafts Petty briefly, just long enough to get a “slingshot”, and squeezes by Petty on the homestretch by a mere 25 feet. Totally outrageous.

He actually drove several different ’65 Coronets that season, including this one set up specifically for short tracks. But it was easy enough to change the front clip. The older cars were specifically set up for dirt tracks, and the new cars for the high speed tracks.

Pearson was so calm and composed during his epic drives that he sometimes had a cigarette lighter on his dash and was known to light up for a couple of puffs on the back stretch while driving one-handed.

“The Best Stock Car Driver Ever”? Here’s what Petty had to say:

“David Pearson could beat you on dirt, he could beat you on pavement, he could beat you on a road course, he could beat you on a short track or he could beat you on a superspeedway,” Petty told Sports Illustrated in 1998. “I never felt as bad losing to David as I did some of the others because I knew just how good he was.”

Pearson outdueled Petty 33 to 30, in the races where they finished 1-2.