Racecar driver. A native of the mill town of Whitney in Spartanburg County, Pearson has been one of the greatest drivers in the history of National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) Winston Cup racing. In a twenty-six-year career, Pearson amassed 105 career wins, second on the all-time list, and three season championships (1966, 1968, 1969). Pearson holds the NASCAR record for winning percentage (18.29 percent) and percentage of races started from the pole (20 percent).
Pearson was born on December 22, 1934. He quit school after the ninth grade and, like most young men in his community, followed his parents into the Whitney Cotton Mill. However, life in the mill was not for Pearson. He soon quit and went to work in his brother’s body shop. Fortunately for Pearson, Spartanburg in the 1950s and 1960s was a hotbed of stock-car racing, and an opportunity opened for him to compete in local dirt-track events. Soon, Pearson became a regular at tracks in the upstate area. After winning the track championship at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in 1959, fans pooled their money to help Pearson buy a car to race at the NASCAR Grand National (which became Nextell Cup in 2004) level.
Pearson quickly demonstrated the talent to compete not only on the short dirt tracks but also on the growing number of high-banked, paved superspeedways. In his early years Pearson raced for such NASCAR legends as Ray Fox, Spartanburg’s Cotton Owens, and the powerful Holman-Moody team. Pearson’s most productive years as a driver came in the seven years he drove for the Wood Brothers (1972–1979). In the number 21 Mercury, Pearson won forty-three times and captured fifty-one poles. In 1973 Pearson had one of the most dominating seasons in NASCAR history, winning eleven times in only eighteen starts. Pearson had his greatest success at Darlington Raceway, South Carolina’s only superspeedway. As of 1980 he still held the record of ten Winston Cup wins at the track.
Pearson has also been known for his longtime on-track rivalry with Richard Petty. Between 1963 and 1977 the pair finished first and second in sixty-three races, with Pearson winning thirty-three. In the 1976 Daytona 500, the pair had their most memorable duel in one of the greatest races in NASCAR history. On the backstretch of the final lap of the race, Pearson moved past Petty into first place. Petty attempted to regain the lead but cut in too quickly, sending Pearson into the wall and losing control of his own car. Both cars spun wildly into the infield only one hundred yards from the finish line. Pearson demonstrated his legendary cool as he kept the car running, while Petty’s engine died. Pearson’s car limped across the finish line at 20 mph to secure his first, and only, win in NASCAR’s most prestigious event. Despite their on-track rivalry, Petty asserted, “David was the best I ever ran with.” In 1988 Pearson retired to his home near Spartanburg, where he remained active for a time as a successful car owner.
Chapin, Kim. Fast as White Lightning: The Story of Stock Car Racing. Rev. ed. New York: Three Rivers, 1998.
Golenbock, Peter. The Last Lap: The Life and Times of NASCAR’s Legendary Heroes. Rev. ed. New York: Hungry Minds, 2001.