Pearson Still Reigns at Darlington

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By: Jim McLaurin

DARLINGTON, S.C. (Oct. 17, 2008) – The first thing a race fan thinks about when he hears the words "David Pearson" and "Darlington" mentioned in the same breath is: "Master. More Darlington wins than anybody. Could drive the old track with one hand behind his back, and probably blindfolded."

Although most of the above came to pass, that wasn't exactly the reaction of Darlington Raceway's all-time winningest driver after his first glimpse of NASCAR's original superspeedway.

"I said, 'Lord, have mercy,'" Pearson said this summer. "It was scary."

Remember where you heard it first: David Pearson once actually had qualms about Darlington. That’s a little hard to believe, especially in light of the fact that of Pearson’s 105 career victories, 10 of those wins came at a track where most drivers would call it a career if they won once.

But according to Pearson, it was a pretty daunting sight that Labor Day weekend in 1960 when he lugged in a year-old dirt-track Chevrolet he’d bought off fellow driver Jack Smith.

"I remember the first time I went down there," Pearson said. "I came in across the track - in what was the fourth turn, then - and I looked up and that thing was shining like a mirror. They'd put that old 'bear grease' on it. … As slick as that thing was, it looked like you couldn't even stand up on it, much less race on it."

That was when the track was in pretty much the same shape as it was in 1950 when the first Southern 500 was run, and the "bear grease" sealant was about the only thing that would hold the asphalt together for 500 miles of racing.

In fact, Pearson said, it was when the "Darlington Stripe" – from kissing the outside wall --  was not a driver error. It was a strategy. The quickest way around the track was to gently touch the guard rail as you exited the fourth turn, and it required not only bravery, but skill as well.

"I'd always heard about it and listened to it on the radio, about them crazy boys up there rubbing that guard rail - I thought people were crazy, running fast enough to hit the guard rail.

"The first time I hit it, I thought I'd tore the whole side of the car off. When I got out and looked, it was just little old streaks on there where it had rubbed."

The fact that it took Pearson 13 tries before he won at Darlington is a testament to the difficulty of the track; the fact that no one other than the late Dale Earnhardt has come within one victory of Pearson’s 10 wins is a testament to Pearson.

Over his career, the Spartanburg, S.C. native won seven spring races at Darlington and three Labor Day classics.

This past Labor Day weekend, the inaugural Darlington Historic Racing Festival was held, and Pearson took the old No. 21 Purolator Mercury he used to drive for the Wood Brothers team out for a spin. 

"The old car felt good," he said. "I wish I could have had some tires like they run today. They tried to find some that could go under (the fenders), but they couldn't. The wheels would hit."

And make no mistake, even at 73 years old and 22 years removed from his last NASCAR race, Pearson can still get around the track.

"They just told me not to run fast on 30-some year-old tires," he said. "I could have run a lot faster with better tires."

Be a part of history when Darlington Raceway celebrates 60 years of racing in 2009. Tickets to the 2009 Southern 500®, as well as the NASCAR Nationwide Series Diamond Hill Plywood 200 are on-sale now. Tickets can be purchased by calling the Darlington Raceway ticket office at 866-459-RACE or online at http://www.darlingtonraceway.com/tickets/.

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