The Silver Fox Was The 600 Master

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David Pearson (21) led 230 of 400 laps in the 1976 Coca-Cola 600, and sped to the victory over fellow NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Richard Petty. (CMS Archives Photo)
David Pearson (21) led 230 of 400 laps in the 1976 Coca-Cola 600, and sped to the victory over fellow NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Richard Petty. (CMS Archives Photo)
David Pearson (21) led 230 of 400 laps in the 1976 Coca-Cola 600, and sped to the victory over fellow NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Richard Petty. (CMS Archives Photo)

CONCORD, N.C. – During the 1970s, epic on-track battles were status quo for NASCAR Hall of Famers David Pearson and Richard Petty; however, it was the three-time champion Pearson who owned the deed to Charlotte Motor Speedway in that decade.

From 1972-’78, Pearson piloted the potent No. 21, candy-apple red-and-white Wood Brothers Racing Mercury to 11 consecutive poles at the 1.5-mile track and 12 in 14 attempts. He also claimed two victories in the Coca-Cola 600, one in 1974 and the other 40 years ago in 1976.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Leonard Wood, who was Pearson’s engine builder, said when his driver would qualify at Charlotte he would say, “About lost it,” and would then secure the pole.

“Any other driver that about loses it doesn’t get on the pole,” Wood said. “If they about lose it, most of the time they’re back in 20th place. If the car was too loose for him qualifying, he would pick it up on the warm-up lap to compensate and drive accordingly to correct for it and be on the pole. He would always say he couldn’t do something and he could.”

Despite Pearson’s success at Charlotte Motor Speedway during the 1970s with the Wood Brothers, his affinity for the speedway actually began much earlier. It started in 1961 when he won his first Coca-Cola 600 driving a Ray Fox-prepared Pontiac. Pearson received his first checkered flag in NASCAR’s premier series on three wheels due to a flat tire and still finished two laps ahead of runner-up Fireball Roberts. He had been named to drive the car a few days before the event and didn’t even know his crew members’ names.

Pearson’s second victory in stock car racing’s longest race came in 1974 with the Wood Brothers. In gaining his 80th career victory, Pearson wrestled the lead from Petty with nine laps remaining. He then held off the man known as stock car racing’s “King” to win by 0.6 seconds. It was Pearson’s first victory at Charlotte since 1961.

Two years later, the 600-mile Memorial Day classic again came down to Pearson and Petty. This time, however, Pearson held the upper hand for the majority of the 1976 race. He led 230 of the 400 laps and possessed a 6.9-second advantage over Petty when a three-car accident occurred on the frontstretch with two laps remaining.

“I barely got past that one,” Pearson said shortly after the race. “I had to go to the grass.”

The wreck involving Dick Brooks, Grant Adcox and James Hylton resulted in the race ending under the caution flag. Petty finished second, with the top two the only ones on the lead lap. The race, which took 4 hours, 22 minutes and 6 seconds to run in grueling hot weather, also marked the NASCAR debut of legendary female racer Janet Guthrie.

Wood notes that some drivers are born with a knack for knowing when to back off the throttle and then picking it up at just the right place. Pearson possessed that sense for knowing how to enter and exit a corner.

Pearson also could sense danger in front of him and know when to back off, Wood continued.

“A lot of people thought he was lucky because he didn’t have that many accidents,” Wood said. “David always looked ahead and he could sense when drivers were going to mess up. He could tell when to back off and when not to.

“He was the easiest driver I’ve ever worked with to get around the race track fast … and one of the greatest drivers I’ve ever worked with.”