Clinton, South Carolina, Tuesday, November 13, 2018, 10:14 a.m.
The first time I met David Pearson was at Spartanburg Downtown Airport. My dad drug me around with him all that summer long. At the time, he was in the fertilizer business, not to mention the auctioneering business and the cattle and horse business.
“You know who that is right yonder, Monte boy?”
“Why, that’s the best stock car racer ever lived,” Daddy said.
My father, rest his soul, led me astray many times, but he was right on the money where Pearson was concerned.
Pearson was back from the high banks and had just landed his plane. Daddy introduced us. Pearson patted me on the shoulder and tousled my hair. I watched him walk away, and we went back to waiting for Leo Sell, the crop-duster who sprayed nearby peach groves at Daddy’s behest.
It was probably about 50 years ago. I had already seen Pearson race at Bristol and Greenville-Pickens. Once I walked past Bear Bryant on the field at Clemson’s Death Valley. It’s all I can compare to meeting Pearson.
About a quarter century later, I got a job writing about NASCAR and, much to my grandmother’s amazement, getting paid for it.
Mama Davis asked me, “What do you do?”
I told her I was a writer. She looked at me as if I’d said I was an astronaut.
“I go to ballgames,” I said. “I take notes, and then I write a story about it, and they pay me.”
“Well, I declare,” she said.
Papa Davis worked in the mill. Mama worked there when she was a child. She was hunched over because of it.
Pearson came from Whitney Mill. Most all the NASCAR stars were working-class heroes. I guess Dale Earnhardt was the last one we’re going to see.
God, Pearson was funny.
Atlanta hosted a press conference put on by Nicorette, and all the legendary drivers present were onetime smokers who kicked the habit late in life. A reporter asked Pearson what it meant that NASCAR, once sponsored by tobacco, was now supported by a product that helped people quit smoking.
Pearson thought a moment. “What it says to me,” he opined, “is that NASCAR will do anything for money.”
The notion that Pearson was bland and shy was one that grew in reporters who tried to conduct formal interviews. I learned how to get him going. It was simple. Make Pearson laugh, and he made me laugh.
“You ain’t got me fooled,” I told him one time.
“What you mean?”
“Everybody talks about how you’re shy and humble,” I said. “That’s just an act. You know exactly how good you were. You just ain’t got time to deal with nobody who ain’t got the sense to see it.”
Pearson’s expression told me I was right on the money.
David Gene Pearson died on Monday at age 83. I couldn’t count the number of great drivers I watched and got to know on two hands. Like most people, I hold exalted opinions of the heroes of my youth, but where stock car racers are concerned, no doubt exists on which one occupies the index finger of my right hand.
Pearson was the best. Argue all day if you want. It won’t sway me.
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