David Pearson: A superhero in plain clothes


Talladega Superspeedway garage area, August 1976. Three reporters are walking past the line of Cup Series team trucks. David Pearson, sitting on the back of one of them, yells, “Hey, are you guys tired of writing about me?”

“No,” one said. “Give us another reason.”

Pearson laughed.

On race weekends, Pearson often could be spotted in the garage area hanging out with pals or discussing world problems with other drivers. Unlike his biggest foe (and friend) Richard Petty, he wasn’t a media magnet. Petty drew sports writers (and fans) like sugar draws flies. On a slow news day, a casual garage interview with Petty about nothing in particular could fill a notebook.

MORE: William Byron No. 1 in NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

It wasn’t that Pearson didn’t like reporters. Some got quite close to him over the years. But, in some ways, he was the opposite of Petty. He wasn’t known to expound on topics, and he generally didn’t cultivate relationships with media. In short, he was a small-town South Carolina boy who made it big but didn’t necessarily want to talk about it all the time.

As Pearson noted that Talladega day, however, it became necessary to engage the man who would become known as the “Silver Fox” for his on-track smarts and the gray that colored his black hair long before he reached “gray” age.

Pearson won three Cup championships in the late 1960s, but the 1970s were his golden age. NASCAR titles weren’t a hot topic across the country when Pearson won with the Holman-Moody team, but stock car racing was gaining traction in the 1970s as the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. jumped into the sport with coins and clout. By 1972, Pearson had moved on to the Wood Brothers team and its No. 21 cars, and magic was about to happen.

They won six races in 1972, but that was merely a prelude to 1973, when Pearson raced 18 times and won 11. The Woods were more than happy to run a limited schedule with Pearson as they cherry-picked big-money events and left town with the big checks.

Pearson won 10 races in 22 appearances in 1976. He won the Daytona 500 after the famous last-lap crash with Petty, and by the time the season’s second Talladega race rolled around in the heat of August, he had won seven times in 13 races.

Reporters were running out of angles to explore with the sometimes reticent Pearson, who would travel to New York City after the season to pick up the prestigious American Driver of the Year Award and a big check at – appropriately – the 21 Club. It was a good Christmas for the Pearson family.

David Pearson and Richard Petty
David Pearson (left) and Richard Petty were friends and rivals who had very different careers in NASCAR (ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images).

“David was very quiet,” Donnie Allison told NBC Sports. “He was as good a driver as we had. He was extremely intelligent but also very patient. Off the track, he liked his private life. He wasn’t very vocal no matter what happened. He kept to himself a lot.

“Bobby (Allison, Donnie’s older brother) and I were talking about David once. While Bobby and Richard Petty beat each other’s fenders, David hung around and won the race.”

Len Wood was the second generation of the Wood family to work with Pearson. His father, Glen, and uncle, Leonard, brought Pearson on board with the 21 team. Eventually, Len and his brother Eddie took over operation of the team, inheriting one of the best drivers in the history of the sport.

Across the years, they enjoyed win after win with Pearson, exchanging stories and tall tales with him and occasionally trying to outsmart him with a prank or joke. That never worked, according to Eddie Wood. Pearson always won – even off track.

“His on-track abilities spoke for themselves,” Len Wood said of Pearson’s nature. “He would rather win than be the one seeking out commercials or to be a star. I don’t think he intended to be a star. But he was good, and he wanted everybody to see that.

“I use Richard Petty as the standard against which we all are judged. He would stand around after a race and sign 500 autographs. Pearson would be on his way home. Like Dale Earnhardt Sr., when a race was over if you beat him out of the gate you had done something.

“I don’t think he needed the limelight. The last 10 laps of a race – that was his time.”

David Pearson and Leonard Wood
David Pearson and crew chief Leonard Wood (left) made magic on NASCAR’s big tracks in the 1970s (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images).

Tim Brewer, a long-time NASCAR crew chief who has been nominated for the Hall of Fame, matched wits with Pearson and the Woods.

“There was nobody smarter, nobody tougher,” Brewer told NBC Sports. “He would race for 100 miles, ride for 300 miles, then in the last 100 miles he was going to kick your ass. He would let somebody else lead until it was time to get paid.”

Pearson rarely had conflicts with other drivers, but he didn’t back away from challenges. Tim Richmond, a young upstart who jumped into the sport in the early 1980s as Pearson’s career was winding down, made the mistake of tangling with Pearson one day in Daytona.

Brewer was Richmond’s crew chief when, during an apparent on-track disagreement, Richmond saluted Pearson with a middle finger.

“Richmond called me on the radio and said, ‘What kind of trouble am I going to be in? I stuck my finger at Pearson,’ ” Brewer said. “I said, ‘You don’t stick your finger at David Pearson. He’ll whip your ass.’

“After the race, I see Pearson on pit road. He said, ‘Brewer, you ought to do something about that … Richmond. He stuck his figure at me. He’s over there in front of the truck. I slapped him.’

“I walked over there, and Richmond is sitting there. He had a handprint across his face. ‘What did he do?’ I asked him. He looked up and said, ‘He hit me.’ ”

Richmond and Pearson never had another issue.

Pearson died in 2018, almost 30 years after he retired from driving. The line that is engraved on his crypt in a cemetery in his hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina captures his life in, appropriately enough, a quiet way. It reads: Simply The Best.





Kyle Larson visits Indianapolis Motor Speedway to survey the scene


Former NASCAR champion Kyle Larson, who is scheduled to run the Indianapolis 500 in 2024 as part of an Indy-Charlotte “double,” visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area Sunday on Indianapolis 500 race day.

Larson said he wanted to familiarize himself with the Indy race-day landscape before he becomes immersed in the process next year.

MORE: Jimmie Johnson is building a team and pointing to Le Mans

Larson later returned to Charlotte, where was scheduled to drive in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night. Next year, he’s scheduled to run both races.

“I love racing,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I love competing in the biggest races. In my opinion, this is the biggest race in the world. I wanted to be a part of it for a long time, and I finally feel like the timing is right. It’s pretty cool to have a dream come true.

“I wanted to come here and kind of experience it again and get to experience how crazy it is again before I’m in the middle of it next year. I kind of want as little surprise as possible next year.”

In the 2024 500, Larson will be one of four drivers with the Arrow McLaren team.

Earlier this month, Larson and Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon attended an Indy 500 practice day.

Larson said Sunday he hasn’t tested an Indy car.

“I don’t know exactly when I’ll get in the car,” he said. “I’ve had no sim (simulator) time yet. I’ve kind of stayed back. I didn’t want to ask too many questions and take any focus on what they have going on for these couple of weeks. I’m sure that will pick up after today.

“I look forward to the challenge. No matter how this experience goes, I’m going to come out of it a better race car driver.”




Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to track

MORE: Dr. Diandra: 600 tests man more than machine

And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”







Dr. Diandra: Charlotte’s 600 miles test man more than machine


This weekend’s 600-mile outing at Charlotte Motor Speedway is NASCAR’s longest race. It’s the ultimate stock car challenge: not just making a car fast but making it fast for a long time.

Although 600 miles is nowhere near the 3,300-plus miles in the 24 Hours of LeMans, the pace is similar. Most of NASCAR’s 600-mile races run between four and five hours.

The 1960 World 600 set the record for this race, requiring five hours, 34 minutes, and six seconds to complete — and it had only eight cautions. The second longest race, the very next year, ran 12 minutes shorter than the previous year’s outing.

The longest race in the modern era (1972 to present) happened in 2005. That race took five hours, 13 minutes, and 52 seconds to complete and set a record for cautions with 22.

Last year’s event was the second-longest modern-era race. With four fewer cautions than 2005, the 2022 race took just 44 seconds less to complete.

The field for the 1960 race included 60 cars. Only 18 of those cars (30%) crossed the finish line.

NASCAR disqualified six drivers for making illegal entrances to pit road. The reasons for the remaining 36 DNFs reads like an inventory of car parts, from “A-frame” to “valve.”

The number of cars failing to finish the race decreased significantly over the years. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was not uncommon for 50-70% of the field to drop out of the race before its end. As the graph below shows, the DNF rate is now in the range of 10-30%.

A bar chart shows how DNFs have decreased over time and turned the the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

Last year — the first year of the Next Gen car — had an abnormally high 46% DNF rate. That doesn’t signify a problem with car reliability.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

Increased car reliability makes people more important

Racecar evolution has changed the nature of NASCAR’s longest race. The car have become so reliable that Charlotte’s 600-mile race is now more a test of drivers than their cars.

“All of the components in the car are pretty standard,” Chase Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “So you just want to make sure you have it all in good condition and dot all your I’s and cross your T’s.”

That wasn’t how it used to be. Kevin Harvick remembers that drivers used to be warned to take care of their equipment early so it would last until the end.

“The engine guys freak out because you have to go an extra 100 miles, but the parts and stuff on the car are a lot more durable than they used to be,” Harvick said. “Back in the day, it was ‘take care of the motor.’ ”

Drivers worry much less about their car’s engine today. The graph below shows how DNFs due to engine failure have decreased since NASCAR started running 600-mile races.

A bar chart shows that engine failures have gone from 50-70% to 10-30%, turning the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

In 1966, more than half the field lost an engine during the race. Only six cars have retired due to engine failure in the last five years.

While cars are more reliable, their drivers are still human. Crash-related DNFs (crashes, failure to beat the DVP clock and inability to meet maximum speed) show no clear trend over time.

A bar chart shows how the number of DNFs due to crashes doesn't show any overall trend with time

Typically, between five to 10% of the cars starting a race will fail to finish due to an accident rather than a mechanical failure. Last year’s race was an exception, setting a record for the largest fraction of the field taken out by crashes since the 600-miler began.

It’s only one data point as far as 600-mile races are concerned. It is, however, indicative of a trend observed since the Next Gen car debuted. The car is so sturdy that contact is no longer the deterrent it used to be.

Man versus machine

NASCAR’s only 600-mile outing has become an endurance race for humans. Drivers draw upon research in hydration, nutrition and fitness, hoping to create an advantage by preparation and conditioning.

“As a driver,” Daniel Suárez said, “your goal is to be as fresh at the end of the race as you are at the beginning. It isn’t about making it to the end of the race. It’s about being at your best at the end and taking advantage of other drivers who are tired.”

Harrison Burton, who ran his first 600-mile race last year, was surprised by how taxing that extra stage was.

“I figured it’s only 100 more miles than 500 and we do that fairly frequently and didn’t think it would be that different,” Burton said, “but for whatever reason when that fourth stage starts it’s definitely daunting.

Burton also noted that last year’s Coca-Cola 600 was the first time he got hungry during a race.

“It’s actually a really important race to have something to snack on in the car during the race,” Ross Chastain said. “I typically have some sort of protein bar that I can eat during a stage break just to try and keep my stamina up.”

The driver isn’t the only one whose mental acumen gets tested during the Coca-Cola 600. Crew chiefs and pit crews must work at peak form for a longer time.

“There’s more pit stops, there’s more restarts, there’s more strategy calls and there’s more laps,” Gustafson said. “There’s more everything.”

That means more opportunities to make mistakes or lose focus — or to take advantage of other drivers who do.

Alex Bowman confident as he returns to racing from back injury


CONCORD, N.C. — Alex Bowman watched the rain-filled skies over Charlotte Motor Speedway Saturday with more than a touch of disappointment.

As weather threatened to cancel Saturday night’s scheduled NASCAR Cup Series practice at the speedway, Bowman saw his chances to testing his car — and his body — dissolving in the raindrops. NASCAR ultimately cancelled practice and qualifying because of rain.

MORE: Wet weather cancels Charlotte Cup practice, qualifying

Bowman suffered a fractured vertebra in a sprint car accident last month and has missed three Cup races while he recovers. Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, the season’s longest race, is scheduled to mark his return to the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet.

“It would have been really nice to kickstart that with practice today,” Bowman said. “I haven’t raced or competitively driven a race car in a month. I’m trying to understand where my rusty areas are going to be and where I’m still good.”

Bowman ran 200 laps in a test season at North Wilkesboro Speedway this week, but, of course, that doesn’t compare with the faster speeds and tougher G-forces he’ll experience over 400 laps Sunday at CMS.

Bowman admitted that he is still experiencing pain from the back injury — his car flipped several times — and that he expects some pain during the race. But he said he is confident he’ll be OK and that the longer race distance won’t be an issue.

“I broke my back a month ago, and there’s definitely things that come along with that for a long time,” he said. “I have some discomfort here and there and there are things I do that don’t feel good. That’s just part of it. It’s stuff I’ll have to deal with. But, for the most part, I’m back to normal.

“I’m easing back into being in the gym. I’m trying to be smart with things. If I twist the wrong way, sometimes it hurts. In the race car at the end of a six-hour race, I’m probably not going to be the best.”

The sprint car crash interrupted what had been a fine seasonal start for Bowman. Although winless, he had three top fives and six top 10s in the first 10 races.

“I’m excited to be back,” Bowman said. “Hopefully, we can pick up where we left off and be strong right out of the gate.”

He said he hopes to return to short-track racing but not in the near future.

“Someday I want to get back in a sprint car or midget,” he said. “I felt like we were just getting rolling in a sprint car. That night we were pretty fast. Definitely a bummer there. That’s something I really want to conquer and be competitive at in the World of Outlaws or High Limits races. Somebody I’ll get back to that. It’s probably smart if I give my day job a little alone time for a bit.”