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 firstname.lastname@example.org
FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid
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