ABC’s Wide World of Sports armed chatty Jackie Stewart with a loaded question – Richard Petty or David Pearson? – and released him into Daytona’s mid-1970s infield. His vox pop turned vexatious. That’s because this shootout had everything: Mopar versus Ford; North versus South Carolina; and brothers in arms. It even had STP versus Purolator, fercrissakes!
Stewart emerged intact from the scrimmage and half-joked that he’d feared for his safety. Yet this bloodletting never spilled onto the track. Not when Pearson threw up an arm “in retirement” to trick Petty into ceding the draft on the last lap of the 1974 Firecracker 400. Not when Petty, many laps in arrears, helped a rival chase down Pearson at the ’75 Daytona 500. Not even when they collided 600 yards from the checkered flag of the ’76 Daytona 500 (BELOW).
The latter was the most dramatic finish in NASCAR’s history – yet Pearson calmly talked his radio guy through it, pressing the transmit button on his harness as he fought the spin and booted the clutch to prevent a stall. And Petty, his wreck steaming 20 yards short of victory, held his hands up: his 190mph calculation had been out by six inches. Besides, he had five wins (with two more to come) at this famous race already; it was right that Pearson should have one.
According to Petty, it hurt less when Pearson beat him because he knew how good he was. The only consolation of having “Little David” grow large in your mirror during the closing stages, he explained, was that it likely meant you were running at the front.
Theirs was a rivalry built on mutual respect. There was friction – that’s to be expected when you race so fast and so close for so long – but the feud lay between their fans.
Petty and Pearson, however, were hardly soulmates. Petty enjoyed his fame, painted it blue and copyrighted it: his is the sport’s most famous image. Pearson, who had plenty to brag about, was good-humored and mischievous – ’21 Forever’, according to the Wood Brothers – but painfully reticent in public. He just wanted to drive – though perhaps not as much as did Petty.
The latter’s career crossed 35 seasons and 1,184 races compared to his rival’s 27 and 574. Born to it, and brought up with it, Petty was NASCAR royalty long before his coronation. Racing was his family’s business and it had, to begin with, a small wooden workshop to prove it.
Pearson, to begin with, kept his modified 1940 Ford hid from his mother’s sight. An unassuming assassin content to hurl stones on small-town dirt tracks, he’d listened to NASCAR’s pavement foolhardiness on the radio – and had heard enough, thank you. Though he was born to it, he didn’t know it yet.
Thankfully, his friends and admirers did, and Pearson was NASCAR’s 1960 Rookie of the Year in the self-prepared Chevy that their nickels and dimes helped him buy; his father coughed up the rest.
Petty’s father Lee was already NASCAR’s first three-time Grand National champion by this stage, but although lanky Richard – 1959’s Rookie of the Year at just 22 – opened his victory account in ’60, Pearson, the elder by 31 months, would become the next three-timer.
Despite a sensational victory as a late replacement in a Ray Fox-run factory Pontiac at Charlotte’s 1961 World 600 – plus wins at Daytona and Atlanta – Pearson didn’t consolidate until his ’63 full-time deal, on a handshake, with fellow Spartanburg resident Everette Douglas ‘Cotton’ Owens. Their winning in Dodges began in ’64 – eight from 61 starts – the year that Petty netted his first title, with nine from 61.
Upon their comeback after NASCAR’s divisive Hemi ban of 1965, it was Pearson’s turn to be crowned, thanks to 15 wins from 42 in ’66. Petty’s remarkable 27 from 48 in ’67 (ABOVE) put that in the shade, but this, the greatest campaign of all, undoubtedly benefited from Pearson’s surprise April falling out, over something and nothing, with Owens after 27 wins together.
Bar two seasons with Mike Curb, with whom he scored his final two victories, Petty drove for the family team. That had its pressures, too, hence the split, but in the main it provided a security denied others. Pearson, though a man in demand, had less control over his destiny. Thus he was relieved to catch a break in 1967.
“Golden Boy” Freddie Lorenzen, fast and quotable, inexplicably followed his NYC stockbroker’s advice and quit Ford’s number one outfit Holman-Moody; Pearson got the gig. He couldn’t stop Petty’s Plymouth that year, but won back-to-back titles – with 27 victories to Petty’s 26 – in 1968-’69. These, however, were his last full campaigns.
Petty, by the way, denied a winged Dodge Charger Daytona, switched to Ford in ’69 and did a terrific job in unfamiliar machinery to score nine wins – plus another in a Plymouth – to finish second in the points.
Ford’s firebrand Executive V-P Lee Iaccoca slashed the Blue Oval’s motorsport budget for 1970 by 75 percent, and Pearson left the stump of Holman-Moody the following year when it suggested that he take a 10 percent cut. Petty, meanwhile, had landed his Superbird and racked up 21 wins and a third title. The fourth would come in ’72 – NASCAR’s first pared back season – the fifth in ’74, the sixth in ’76, and the seventh in ’79.
Only once during this period did Pearson finish in the top three on points (1974). He had, though, got his foot in the Wood Brothers’ door – and kicked it wide first time out with a dominant win from pole at the ’72 Rebel 400.
Nobody else could drive Darlington – The Lady in Black supposedly too tough tame – like Pearson could. He garnered 10 victories there and made it look easy, though not as easy as embellished stories of his smoking during races might suggest. There was a lighter on his dash, but he reached for it only during caution periods. Butts were, however, casually flicked during races; he’d do anything to wind up Buck Baker!
In a bid to halt Pearson’s string of poles at Charlotte, entrepreneurial track manager Humpy Wheeler subtly tweaked a turn. The wrong one, as it turned out. Pearson would by 1978 extend his remarkable sequence to 11.
Pearson had the speed – 113 poles (to Petty’s 123) don’t lie – but, with a sixth sense for pacing and other people’s incidents, he tended to play a waiting game in races, preserving mind and body, machinery and tires. The last lap was what mattered.
And that often boiled down to a dice against Petty. They finished 1-2 on 63 occasions from 1963-’77. In a rivalry crammed with startling statistics, this is the most astounding. Though Pearson got the better of it – 33 to 30 – there was a barely a coat of Petty Blue between them. When they shared the track, that is.
Pearson’s eight seasons with the Wood Brothers brought him 43 wins. That just one was scored at a short track, plus three at Riverside’s road course, is indicative of this Virginia-based outfit’s expertise and focus. With neither the financial clout nor manpower to contest entire seasons, it reasoned that, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
It was suggested at the time that Pearson was content with his three championship rings, one for each son, but while it’s true that at times he had to be coaxed from poolside to trackside – he didn’t need to practice, but the car did! – he has in retirement expressed regret at being unable to run for more titles. His assessment that he might have won another three or four had he done so is far from boastful.
You can confidently speculate, too, that Petty would have taken it to the wire every year bar, perhaps, 1974. Oh, and maybe ’73. Pearson’s 29 top-10 finishes from his 37 starts spread over those seasons included 18 wins.
But – and this is the thing – you don’t need to speculate about Petty. Though his career perhaps ran five years longer than was good for it – he contested 241 races after his final victory and his pole positions dried up as long ago as ’79 – he extracted every last drop of STP from it. He had more opportunities than did Pearson – and took them.
Pearson didn’t much want to retire either – he contested just 55 races after his final win and set pole at four of them – but recurring back spasms pulled him up short at 51 in 1986.
Better to remember them at the top of their games, stellar careers in parallel, two tons of 800 horsepower side by side at 200mph. Actually, at the time of their final wins, it was Petty who had the better win:start ratio…
Stop! It’s not just sheer weight of numbers that gives The King his authority – although 200 wins to Pearson’s 105 is telling – it’s his personality and charisma. But for them, far fewer would have paid attention to how brilliant the reclusive Pearson was.
Petty is the gold standard by which The Silver Fox can be measured.
More in RACER‘s Great Rivalries series: