Quiet and soft spoken, David Gene Pearson kept many of his thoughts to himself, especially those regarding race strategy and the race cars he drove. That mentality gave birth to the nickname the “Silver Fox” in part because he was prematurely gray in his early 40s and because he kept everyone in the dark, even his own crew.
Eddie Wood, co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing, remembers how Pearson kept his cards close to the vest.
“When he drove for us, David would be out there racing and we never really knew what he was thinking or what he had left in the car,” Wood said. “We would call him on the radio and ask him about the handling of the car or tires or whatever and he would always say he was fine or the car was fine. Even with us, he wouldn’t say a lot. He was real quiet. But he would always give you more than he said he could do. He was absolutely the best about letting the race come to him and capitalizing on it. He could always get so much out of a race car. He was an amazing driver.”
The quiet persona was good for Pearson, as he remains NASCAR’s second-winningest driver behind seven-time Cup Series champion and rival Richard Petty. Pearson won 105 races and three championships in 574 Cup Series starts. He died Nov. 12 at age 83.
Born on Dec. 22, 1934, near Spartanburg, S.C., Pearson’s passion for stock car racing began during his teenage years when he climbed a tree at the Spartanburg Fairgrounds to watch races. He worked for his brother in a car repair shop and saved money to buy an old Ford. He wrecked so many times his mother paid him to stop racing, but that money went to buy something better to race. He began winning on local tracks and attracted the attention of newspaper editors in the area.
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After claiming the 1959 track championship at Greenville-Pickens Speedway, Pearson started his first NASCAR premier series race in a 1960, finishing 17th in a Daytona 500 qualifying event in his own car. He started 22 races and was named rookie of the year.
Possibly the biggest break of his career came in 1961 when he joined team owner Ray Fox for the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Pearson pulled off a miraculous victory aboard Fox’s No. 3 Pontiac. He started 19 races that season and won three times.
In 1964, he had eight wins and 12 poles to finish third in the standings.
In his first full-time season during 1966, Pearson won his first of three NASCAR championships with 15 wins in 49 starts. He ran a partial season in 1967, competing in 22 of 48 races. He began the season racing for Cotton Owens before switching to the Holman Moody Ford operation. Pearson won his second championship in 1968 and defended for Holman Moody in 1969. It was the last time he ran the full schedule.
After disappointing seasons in 1970 and ’71, Pearson, John Holman and Ralph Moody ended their relationship. Pearson joined team owners Bud Moore and Ray Nichels for select events but enjoyed very little success.
That paved the way for his successful run with Wood Brothers Racing.
A.J. Foyt, winner of the 1972 Daytona 500 for the team, had Indy car commitments and could not start the Rebel 400 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway in April. Pearson joined team owner Glen Wood on a handshake. He won the race in their first start together and collected five additional victories that season.
Pearson’s amazing 1973 season featured 11 wins in only 18 starts, giving him NASCAR’s Driver of the Year award after finishing eighth in points. All but one of those wins came on a superspeedway.