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Pearson Was The King At Charlotte In The ’70s

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 27 2016
David Pearson was the driver to beat at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the 1970s.

David Pearson was the driver to beat at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the 1970s.

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

CONCORD, N.C. – During the 1970s, epic on-track battles were status quo for NASCAR Hall of Famers David Pearson and Richard Petty; however, it was the three-time champion Pearson who owned the deed to Charlotte Motor Speedway in that decade.

Color nascar logoFrom 1972-78, Pearson piloted the potent No. 21, candy-apple red and white Wood Brothers Mercury to 11 consecutive poles at the 1.5 mile track and 12 in 14 attempts. He also claimed two victories in the speedway’s 600-mile race, one in 1974 and the other one 40 years ago in 1976.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Leonard Wood, who was Pearson’s engine builder, said when his driver would qualify at Charlotte he would say, “About lost it”, and would then secure the pole.

“Any other driver that about loses it doesn’t get on the pole,” Wood said. “If they about lose it, most of the time they’re back in 20th place. If the car was too loose for him qualifying, he would pick it up on the warm-up lap to compensate and drive accordingly to correct for it and be on the pole. He would always say he couldn’t do something and he could.”

In the late 1970s, Wood said then speedway general manager H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler tried to stop Pearson’s unbridled success.    

“They thought it was because of the hump in (turns) 1 and 2, so they worked on that,” Wood said. “Then David set on the pole and he told him (Wheeler), ‘You worked on the wrong turn.’”

That, however, was simply the man nicknamed the “Silver Fox” playing mind games; something he even enjoyed doing with Leonard.

“Every time we pushed the car out to qualify Leonard would be looking for him (Pearson). He’d say,

David Pearson and Leonard Wood knew how to go fast at CMS. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

David Pearson and Leonard Wood knew how to go fast at CMS. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

‘Where’s he at? Where’s he at?’” Len Wood said about his uncle’s response to the missing Pearson. “He’d send (my brother) Eddie or me to look for him and he would be sitting down there, just out of sight.”

Despite Pearson’s success at Charlotte during the 1970s with the Wood Brothers that’s not when his affinity for the speedway began. It actually started in 1961 when he won his first-ever World 600 driving a Ray Fox-prepared Pontiac. Pearson received his first-ever checkered flag in NASCAR’s premier series on three wheels due to a flat tire and still finished two laps ahead of runner-up Fireball Roberts. He had been named to drive the car a few days before the event and didn’t even know his crew members’ names.

Pearson’s second victory in stock car racing’s longest race came in 1974 with the Wood Brothers. In gaining his 80th career victory, Pearson wrestled the lead from Petty with nine laps remaining. He then held off the man known as stock car racing’s “King” to claim a narrow 0.6-second victory. It was Pearson’s first victory at Charlotte since 1961.

Two years later the 600-mile Memorial Day classic again came down to Pearson and Petty. This time, however, Pearson held the upper hand for the majority of the 1976 race. He led 230 of the 400 laps and possessed a 6.9-second advantage over Petty when a three-car accident occurred on the frontstretch with two laps remaining.

“I barely got past that one,” Pearson said shortly after the race. “I had to go to the grass.”

The wreck involving Dick Brooks, Grant Adcox and James Hylton resulted in the race ending under caution. Petty finished second, with the top two the only ones on the lead lap. The race, which took 4 hours 22 minutes 6 seconds to run in grueling hot weather, marked the NASCAR debut of Janet Guthrie.

After failing to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, Wheeler convinced Guthrie to head to Charlotte for the 600. The first woman to drive in the 600, Guthrie eventually finished 15th, 21 laps off the pace. In that era, the 3,700-pound stock cars weren’t equipped with power steering or equipment designed for cooling the driver. Bruce Jacobi stood by in Guthrie’s pit in case she needed a relief driver, but she didn’t.  Guthrie went the distance and earned the Curtis Turner Achievement Award.

Even though Guthrie completed the distance, the speedway’s water system didn’t. Halfway through the race Wheeler’s brother, David, told him the speedway was out of water. The 500,000 gallons of water that normally sufficed on race day didn’t make it. Even though the race was a sellout and only 500 standing-room only tickets were sold, it was the tremendous increase in female fan attendance that placed the strain on the restroom facilities and depleted the track’s water supply. Operations manager Harvey Walters’ plan was to call the volunteer fire departments on his list and have them bring their tanker truck filled with water to the track. If they could get it there in 30 minutes, they would be paid $500. The fans watching Pearson’s domination en route to his third and final 600 victory were never aware of the track’s dilemma.

With victories in the 1976 Daytona 500 and World 600, Pearson was now poised to claim NASCAR’s Triple Crown; a feat the Spartanburg, S.C., driver achieved on Labor Day weekend with his victory in Darlington’s Southern 500.

“We probably were thinking about the Triple Crown when we won the ’76 600,” Leonard Wood said. “At the beginning of the year, they say if you win those three you win the Triple Crown, so it was in the back of your mind.”

Of course, the Charlotte track was “always fun to come to,” the elder Wood noted, but he cited Pearson’s driving style as the sole reason the family-owned team enjoyed so much success, especially during qualifying, at the North Carolina track.

“You could set the car up rolling free through the corners and he wouldn’t be loose,” Wood explained. “He would just back off, let the car float into the corner, pick the throttle up and then blow you away down the straightaway.

“Another driver would have been loose with that car. When another driver drives in hard and hits the brakes hard, he’s about to spin out, so you have to jack weight in it to keep it from spinning out. When you do and it settles down, now the thing is pushing or scrubbing off speed coming off the corner because it’s too tight after he gets back in the throttle.

“David would let it float in there, take a set and he wouldn’t be pushing. The car is rolling so much freer through the corner and still he wasn’t loose. In all fairness, the car was good too, but he made it to where you could set it up with a rolling free chassis through the corner. That is why he ran so well.”

Wood notes that some drivers are born with a knack for knowing when to back off the throttle and then picking it up at just the right place. Pearson possessed that sense for knowing how to enter and exit a corner.

Pearson also could sense danger in front of him and know when to back off, Wood continued.

“A lot of people thought he was lucky because he didn’t have that many accidents,” Wood said. “David always looked ahead and he could sense when drivers were going to mess up. He could tell when to back off and when not to.

“He was the easiest driver I’ve ever worked with to get around the race track fast … and one of the greatest drivers I’ve ever worked with.”   

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 27 2016
2 Comments

2 Comments »

  • Marty C says:

    Also, the picture at the top of the article is victory lane at Daytona. I was there, shooting pictures for the speedway.

  • Marty C says:

    Actually Janet Guthrie DID have power steering at that race. I believe it was the 1st time it was used in a Cup car.