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Commentary

WAID’S WORLD: Remembering The Driver Named David, Not Mr. Pearson

In 1973 I was in my second full year covering the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit. So it stands to reason I was still learning about the sport of stock car racing.

I had seen and learned a lot in a short period of time. In 1972, Richard Petty and Bobby Allison waged a war that included some of the hardest confrontational racing NASCAR had ever seen – especially on the short tracks.

Allison saw Petty as his most formidable blockade to the championship. Petty, already the winner of multiple titles, wasn’t going to tolerate Allison’s challenge.

Their rivalry galvanized the media. We witnessed every action and hung on every word to fully report on the fracas, which came to an end after Petty won the championship – his fourth – and Allison won the most races, 10.

I thought I had seen it all.

I hadn’t seen anything yet. Nor had anyone else, for that matter.

I started at the Martinsville Bulletin so it stands to reason I knew the Wood Brothers, whose racing shops were located in Stuart, about 50 miles away.

Well, I knew of the Wood Brothers. As far as the media went I’m not sure anyone knew Glen and Leonard Wood. They were quiet types who kept to themselves and seemed to be very wary of the press.

Many of us suspected the Woods were reticent because they didn’t want to spill any secrets.

They were one of the most successful teams in NASCAR, especially at the superspeedways on which they competed almost exclusively – which made sense since the big tracks paid the most money.

David Pearson was in his second year as the Woods driver in ’73. His season started off in mediocrity, with finishes of 22nd and 33rd at Riverside and Daytona, respectively.

Then something happened. Pearson won the next five races in which he competed, four of them on superspeedways – Rockingham, Atlanta, Darlington and Talladega.

He also won at Martinsville, the only short track on which the Woods competed. The speedway’s cagey owner, the late Clay Earles, made sure of that.

By the time Pearson came to Martinsville it became imperative that I attempt to do some kind of in-depth piece on him.

I had never spoken to him. Sure, I heard him at his post-race press conferences many times. But I had never experienced a one-on-one discussion with him – or the Woods, for that matter.

It seemed to be a daunting task. After all, Pearson was an established star. By 1973 he had already won 66 races and three championships with the likes of Cotton Owens and Holman-Moody.

And, unlike Petty, Pearson was not known to be gregarious or overly outgoing. The word was that it was because he had a lot of Native American in him, for whatever that was worth.

It didn’t matter to me if he was Sitting Bull. I had to talk to him.

At Martinsville I approached him when I saw that, at last, he was alone. He always seemed to be engaged in a conversation with others, all of them laughing.

“Excuse me, Mr. Pearson,” I said.

“What did you call me?” he answered.

I was taken aback.

“I can’t remember if I have ever been called Mr. Pearson, unless it was by a cop standing at my car door,” he said with a smile. “I don’t know your name, but judging from that pad and pen in your hands you’re going to ask me questions.”

“My name is Steve Waid from the Roanoke Times,” I said.

“OK,” he said. “I won’t call you Mr. Waid, I’ll call you Steve. Fire away.”

He spoke at length about his association with the Woods and how meticulous they were about car preparation. He said Leonard was a master engine builder who was very particular about the finished product.

“A lot of folks think I just play games out on the track, just take it easy until it’s time to move,” Pearson said. “That may be what it looks like but it’s not that simple.

“Heck, maybe it is. That’s how good the cars are.”

Pearson would take little, if any, credit for what he did on the track only to say he drove each of them in ways that were comfortable.

“Maybe by doing that I am a little faster,” he added.

Our talk drifted away from racing. Pearson didn’t say much about himself – I don’t know if he ever did – but he touched on just about everything else.

When I walked away I realized I had engaged in a conversation with a pleasant, smiling man from Spartanburg and not so much a racing superstar.

Pearson and the Woods went on to win 11 of the 18 races they entered in 1973, a remarkable record that has since been unapproachable.

It would not end there. In 1976, for example, Pearson and the Woods won 10 of 22 races.

 Their successful union has been seared into NASCAR lore.

Pearson was never again as successful as he was with the Woods. His most shining moment came in 1979 when he won the Southern 500 as a relief driver for an injured Dale Earnhardt on Rod Osterlund’s team. He won at Darlington again in 1980.

He never changed. Except, perhaps, to become even more affable as the years passed.

I was never as close to Pearson as, say, the likes of Barney Hall and Bud Moore. But we always talked, laughed, told jokes and gossiped.

I always called him David.

And he always called me Steve.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement    

Categories
Commentary

WAID’S WORLD: A Dominant Trio Is Something NASCAR Has Seen Before

The character the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season has assumed isn’t the kind most fans would like to see.

And a sport that often promotes its high level of competition probably doesn’t like it, either.

Three drivers have dominated the season. They have won 14 of 18 races. They have 19 stage wins among them. They occupy the top three positions in the point standings. It’s reasonable to assume they will be strong favorites to battle for the championship – and one of them will win it.

Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. have become known as “The Big Three” of the season so far. Busch and Harvick have five victories each, Truex four. If you want a foursome include Clint Bowyer with two wins.

Unless you are a fan of one or more of them, this isn’t the kind of thing you perceive NASCAR to be all about. To have multiple winners is your thing. The sanctioning body also likes it.

But as it is in every sport sometimes a select few teams or athletes rise above the others. Happens all the time.

I assume you wouldn’t be surprised if I told you it’s happened in NASCAR before – more than once, in fact.

It was particularly flagrant in 1974 when three drivers combined to win 27 of that season’s 30races.

It happened during a time when NASCAR tried hard to equalize the competition and made many expensive rule changes to make that happen.

But it was to no avail.

It was the season of Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson. They were already seasoned stars and multiple championship winners, so no one was overly surprised that they were successful.

But no one figured they would be so dominant. Petty and Yarborough won 10 races each and Pearson, who did not compete on short tracks, won six.

NASCAR desperately attempted to regulate competition and derail their efforts. During the year it made a whopping five major rule changes.

In March of 1974 the sanctioning body made what it said was going to be its only rule change of the year. It mandated that teams use a new carburetor on engines no larger than 366 cu. in.

But by April NASCAR allowed teams running larger engines to utilize yet another carburetor, one that allowed the intake of more air.

However, after Chevrolets running the smaller engine filled the top six positions at Martinsville, with Yarborough the winner, competition was in trouble. NASCAR reacted with yet another change that called for more carburetor alterations.

And there were more to come.

As you might imagine teams became frustrated for several reasons – most of them financial.

“I got home from Martinsville and got another rule change in the mail,” said independent driver/owner Richard Childress. “A few hours earlier I spent $70 on a carburetor that was obsolete before I ever used it.”

 “NASCAR has things so screwed up I don’t know what’s fair and what isn’t,” Petty said. “This small engine thing has cost us $50,000.”

“We get a lot of criticism,” said Bill France Jr., president of NASCAR. “But if you have a bad rule and you know it why stick with it?”

No matter what NASCAR did – this engine, that engine, this carburetor, that carburetor – it did nothing to stifle three of its best teams and drivers.

There was a reason for that. The teams, Petty Enterprises, Wood Brothers Racing and Junior Johnson and Associates, had the money and technical talent to capitalize on every new mandate.

Glen Wood, for example, had his engine builder develop and new 366 cu. in. Ford engine. As a result, Pearson never lost one fathom of his superspeedway prowess.

Among other things, the Pettys beefed up a 340 cu. in. Chrysler engine.

No one knew what Johnson was up to but that is the way he wanted it as Yarborough won repeatedly.

Petty’s words about the season and its revolving rule changes proved prophetic.

“No matter what the rules are the same teams are going to win,” he said. “The only difference is it costs everybody more money to make the changes.”

This year, to date, NASCAR hasn’t made any significant rule changes. Why bother? There is plenty of time for the competition to equalize before the season is over.

 Then again, that might not happen.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Commentary

WAID’S WORLD: Lessons Learned From The Wild 1976 Daytona 500 Finish

DAYTONA BEACH, FL – By the time the year 1976 rolled around I had been on the sports staff of the Roanoke World-News for four years. I spent a lot of time covering local games and such, but I did get to dabble in more prominent events.

For example, I was the beat man for the local hockey team, the Roanoke Valley Rebels, of the Eastern Hockey League.

By the way, if you’ve seen the movie “Slap Shot,” then you’ve seen the Eastern Hockey League.

I also covered NASCAR. I had gotten some experience and knowledge while I was at the Martinsville Bulletin. The Roanoke folks knew this and counted on me to be their point man when it came to racing – well, that’s what they told me anyway.

But what experiences I had. I covered races in Martinsville, Bristol, Darlington, Atlanta, North Wilkesboro and Richmond.

But something was missing. In my first three years at Roanoke, I never made it to Daytona.

That changed in ’76. Budget constraints meant I would be in Daytona only long enough to cover the 125-mile qualifying races and the Daytona 500. I didn’t care.

I readily admit I have told the tale of the first Daytona 500 I ever covered more than once.

It’s a good example of how someone who is attempting to establish a career might have bitten off more than he could chew – and wonder if that career would be finished before it hardly got started.

My trip did not start off well. A big snowstorm hit the Southeast and many roads were impassable. I found that out the hard way after the company car I was driving, a big red Ford Galaxy, spun out at the bottom of the hill down from my house.

I recovered and told myself conditions would be better the farther South I went.

Wrong. When I finally picked up I-95 outside Florence, S.C., only one lane was open. I could manage about 30 mph.

I was a nervous wreck. If I came up on a slower car or truck, I’d have to pass and that meant shifting to a snow-covered lane. And could I make it up and down the exit ramp to get gas? And what if traffic was stopped?

I-95 wasn’t completed to Daytona so I had to traverse two-lane highways through most of Georgia.

Finally snow gave way to rain at Savannah and traveling was much easier. By the time I got to Daytona and found my motel I had been on the road for 14 hours.

It took me some time to get accustomed to the massive 2.5-mile speedway, its seemingly acres of garage area and huge pit road.

I had no problem composing what I thought was interesting copy. I had become familiar with several of the drivers and they didn’t hesitate to talk to me.

I thought, “This is fun. This is going to be a cinch.”

Wrong again. The bottom fell out.

As you know, the 1976 Daytona was arguably the most exciting in the track’s history.

The final 22 laps became a trophy dash between Richard Petty and David Pearson, the top stars of the day.

Pearson took the lead on the backstretch on the final lap but he drifted high and Petty moved under him.

They rode side-by-side out of the fourth turn when suddenly their cars bobbled. Pearson whacked the wall nose first and clipped Petty in the process.

Their two cars spun out of control. Petty ended up in the grass about 100 feel from the finish line. Pearson came to a halt at the entrance to pit road.

Pearson managed to keep his foot in the clutch and was able to limp across the finish line at 20 mph to win. Petty’s engine had died.

I had never seen the likes of it. To be honest, no one in the press box – or anywhere else – had either.

After the completion of Pearson’s press conference my mind went blank. I sat there unable to come up even the first words of the piece I had to write. I was overwhelmed.

No one else seemed to have that problem. Typewriters were clicking rapidly throughout the press box.

I wrote, “They wrecked.” Naw, no good. I wrote, “It was one for the ages.” Cliché. I wrote, “You had to see it to believe it.” Terrible.

I started to panic. After time, I was among the last in the press box and I had not even started.

Finally I just started writing. And I kept writing. When I was finished I hardly knew what I had written- heck, I don’t know to this day.

But I made my deadline and didn’t get a midnight phone call from my editor telling me I was fired.

In time I realized why it took me so long to do my job. Those around me were experienced. They were veterans who long ago learned how to do the job competently and quickly – no matter the circumstances.

I told myself that someday, if I learned my lessons, I would be like them.

But if nothing else I am glad I was there to see a part of NASCAR history.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Kentucky Belongs to Generation Now

Kentucky Speedway opened with an ARCA race in 2000. Since then, NASCAR has held races in various series at the track. Greg Biffle won the inaugural Camping World Truck Series race at the track and Kevin Harvick, the first XFINITY race.

The history of the Sprint Cup series at Kentucky, meanwhile, is actually quite limited. With only six Cup races held at the Sparta track, there are but three drivers with Kentucky wins on their resume: Matt Kenseth, two-time winner Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, who became a three-time winner this past weekend. It would be safe to assume (barring any major complications) every Kentucky winner will return to compete in next year’s race.

When the Cup series returns to the 1.5-mile track in 2017, those three winners should be joined by every driver with more than one top five at Kentucky, every driver who has recorded double digits in laps led and every driver who has sat on the pole. There is probably not another track that will be able to say the same.

Kentucky may lack in longevity, but there is an opportunity for this generation of Cup drivers to make this track their own. They need not worry about living up to the standards set by Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt or Darrell Waltrip. Even Jeff Gordon failed  to win at Kentucky before retiring last season.

Instead, they will be the ones setting the standards and to do so, they will compete against the drivers next to them, rather than the legends they know only from studying NASCAR history.

The history of the Kentucky Speedway may pale when placed alongside Daytona, Talladega or Darlington, but if it is to be raised to sit alongside those tracks in esteem and prestige, it will be because of the exploits of those drivers we are watching on TV or at the track every week.

Right now, Brad Keselowski would be considered the man when it comes to Kentucky, the way Petty is considered “The King” of Daytona or the way Waltrip ruled Bristol. If there is a driver who knocks Keselowski off his Kentucky throne, it will be one of his current or future competitors.

Cup history in Kentucky may not be long, but it is being written before our very eyes.

EMAIL: john.milner@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.