Behind the wheel of a Wood Brothers Racing Ford at Darlington Raceway, David Pearson often was unbeatable in the 1970s.
“The Silver Fox” enjoyed letting his NASCAR rivals know it, too — such as during the 1976 Rebel 500 at the track.
“We were about halfway through, and David says, ‘Check this out,’ ” Leonard Wood, who was Pearson’s crew chief, said with a laugh. “He blew by Buddy Baker right at the start-finish line and lit a cigarette as he went by. He would do things like that to frustrate you a little bit, even if he was driving his heart out.
“He’d make it look like it was easy.”
It was most evident at the track many consider the most difficult in stock-car racing
In Sunday’s Southern 500, the venerable No. 21 will be driven by Ryan Blaney and sponsored by Snap-on Tools with a mosaic paint scheme comprised of 2,000 photos tracing its history to the team’s inception in 1950 – the same year the “Track Too Tough To Tame” opened with its first Southern 500 on Labor Day.
As Wood Brothers Racing grew into a NASCAR powerhouse over the next two decades, the team’s rise inextricably was intertwined with Darlington’s emergence as a Southern holiday tradition and cultural staple on par with sweet tea.
“It was a ton of people at that race,” team co-owner Eddie Wood said. “If the garage opened at 7 a.m., you’d need to be there by 5:30 just to get in and not get caught in traffic. Because everybody went.
“That was where I first really noticed people camping who were there all week. Sleeping on their cars, in them, on top of them, under them, in the truck. It was so makeshift. You’d go in the infield and park and get lost. You weren’t really sure how to get back out.”
Of Wood Brothers Racing’s 98 victories in NASCAR’s premier series, eight came at Darlington, including six of Pearson’s record 10 wins at the 1.366-mile oval.
Pearson won back-to-back Southern 500s with the team in 1976-77. The performances were quintessentially Pearson, who was known as “The Silver Fox” in part for famously disguising his car’s strength until it absolutely mattered.
In ’76, he started on the pole position and paced the first 11 laps but wouldn’t lead again until there were 100 to go. In ’77, he led only 60 of 367 laps and didn’t move into first until the 170th lap.
They were the high-water marks of a career renaissance starting with Pearson winning from the pole in his Wood Brothers Racing debut at Darlington in April 1972. It was the first of 42 wins with the team that helped cement the legend of the Spartanburg, S.C., native whose 105 wins ranks second to Richard Petty.
In interviews with NASCAR Talk, Leonard Wood and his nephews Eddie and Len (who run the team) shared their favorite memories of Pearson, who was inducted in the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s second class in 2011:
Eddie Wood: “With David, you knew if you didn’t break, you had a shot to win the race. Darlington was just his place. There’s a lot of people who could get around there really well, but not like him. He was the best ever at Darlington.”
Len Wood: “His style was taking care of the car. He’d lead the first lap, ease up and let someone else take over. In the last 100 miles, here he would come and start picking his way back up. He’d let someone else go wear their stuff out. I’ve seen him at Rockingham lead all but one lap. But at Darlington, he wouldn’t abuse the equipment. He would save his stuff. I think it comes from years of seasoning.”
Leonard Wood: “David would get a good run off the corner, back off and let it float in the corner and then pick the throttle up. He’d have so much speed and blow by them at the finish line. He was so good at it. I can remember it just like yesterday. I’d be sitting on pit wall, and when he really got lined up, the car would be coming straight off the corner, and it would leap twice. I can remember lots of times he’d say if he was going to catch a car as he went in the corner, he would back off so he’d catch him off the corner. Because if he had to let off right in the middle of the corner, now he’s all bogged down and lost his momentum. So that’s how he’d work traffic.”
Eddie Wood: “There’s a certain groove he ran, and you could glance up, and you knew it was him. He had a different way of going through there. He’d dive into (turn) 3 and go up, drop down and get it set to drive straight off 4.
Len Wood: “In the early ‘70s, he just started driving for us, and at Michigan, there was a dirt road on the back way out called Victory Road. He had a red Torino, and he was going to take us back to the motel. He was running 100 mph on this dirt road going up and down, up and down, and he’s got one hand on the wheel like he’s riding down the interstate. We’re all hanging on, and then you realize, ‘Wait a minute. He’s in control of this thing. There’s no reason to get worried. Just enjoy the ride.’ I think he ran the race car the same way.”
Eddie Wood: “He and Leonard had a great relationship. They almost knew what each other was thinking. You knew he’d go when it came time. He always did.”
Len Wood: “There’d be times he’d be getting ready to qualify, and we’d be pushing the car along, and Leonard would be looking for Pearson, stretching his neck. Pearson would be out of sight but could see Leonard watching. He was messing with him. He would wait until Leonard would get antsy and say, ‘Go find him!’ We’d be looking off to the side, and there he’d be just watching. He would have never missed a qualifying lap, but he always would make you think he would.
Leonard Wood: “We had a good thing going. I picked at him as much as he picked at me.”
Len Wood: “Everyone said, ‘Pearson is washed up.’ We talked about it and said, ‘He’s a tough competitor. He’s not done.’ We ended up hiring him. We won 43 races.
Leonard Wood: “We were just thinking we’re going to have him as our driver if it ever comes possible. That time came along, and we put him in there, and he was just unbeatable.