David Pearson Didn't Have Big Bucks
"I've never quite seen the garage like this," said team owner Bill Davis, who admits his Cup team might not be back in 2009 if he cannot find a sponsor. "But then again, we've never had these huge budgets and these huge payrolls. Maybe this garage is going through an adjustment period, just like the business world does. It happens. When things get tight, you adjust and scale back. Unfortunately, that involves hard times for some people."
Think about how NASCAR has changed over the past 60 years. Not so long ago when someone mentioned NASCAR, they were merely referring to the organization that sanctioned, governed and promoted their style of stock car racing. Now when we say NASCAR, we're talking about a sport, a way of life, a phenomenon, and all things surrounding this type of racing.
Several decades ago the the sport centered around the drivers. Many of them raced without any major sponsors.
"Silver Fox and "Little David" are two nicknames used to describe David Pearson, the threetime Winston Cup champion.
"The best there's ever been," is Richard Petty's description of Pearson.
Pearson was born on December 22, 1934, in Whitney, S.Ca.
He started racing in 1952 in a 1940 Ford coupe, in Woodruff, S.C. He pocketed $13 after winning his first race, but liked the thrill so much that he knew racing was his life.
In 1960, Pearson bought his own late model Chevrolet race car and headed to Daytona where he came in 18th. He raced in the first World 600 and came in 10th.
He was named Rookie of the Year in 1960.
Then in 1961, David went on to win three major victories, the World 600, the Firecracker 250 and the Dixie 400 at Atlantamaking him the first man to win, in a single year, on three of NASCAR's Big Four tracks.
In 1964, Pearson won eight races on the short tracks and was the fastest qualifier 12 times. In 1966, driving for Dodge, he won 10 of his 15 Grand National victories on dirt tracks, and then earned enough points on the superspeedway to win the first of his three NASCAR championships. Pearson switched to Ford, and in 1968, drove the Ford to 16 victories and 36 finishes in the top five.
In 1969, he became the first man to break the 190 mph barrier at Daytona, qualifying his Ford Talladega at 190.029 mph. He then went on to win the 125-mile qualifying race. In March at Rockingham, he scored a victory in the Carolina 500 and gained victories on each on the South's existing superspeedways.
Pearson entered 572 races, out of which he won 105, and placed within the top five 301 times. Pearson was the NASCAR Winston Cup Champion in 1966, 1968 and 1969.
He was equally good on road courses (four wins), superspeedways (48 victories) and short tracks (54). He also won 23 dirt track races, and won at least one time at almost every venue.
Pearson is perhaps a legend not only for his driving stats but for his legendary rival with Richard Petty. Petty was quoted in the March 1993, Stock Car Racing Magazine as saying:
"Writers were asking me last year who was the best driver I ever raced against. I told them David Pearson. David and I ran more first and seconds than anybody else, and we raced together on dirt track, superspeedways, and road courses, big and little tracks. It didn't make any difference; you had to beat him every week."
One of their most memorable duels took place at Daytona in 1976. Pearson had fallen back about a second behind Petty but made up the distance in the last three laps. While fighting for the lead in the backstretch, Pearson and Petty got together sending Pearson into the wall and Petty into the grass about 100 feet short of the finish line. Pearson, who had managed to keep his car running, inched his way to the checkered flag at 20 mph. For most fans, this ranks as one of the all time, if not the, greatest finish in history.
Even though Pearson went on to have major sponsors, his yearly racing budget never exceeded $75,000. That's pocket change compared to today's teams.
A lot has changed in NASCAR since Pearson was in the spotlight. The sport is team and sponsor focused. No longer is there room for an owner/driver in big league NASCAR racing. Even a single one-car operation has upwards of 100 people.
"We've been very fortunate," Chad Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson said. "This has been an incredible ride we've been on since 2002. ... It's a lot different than what it used to be. The crew chief used to have to get out there and build the shocks and set up the race cars and do all that stuff himself."
Hendrick Motorsports has more than 500 people, so crew chiefs mainly supervise.
"I'm very fortunate that Mr. Hendrick allows me to employ the people that we need to and have teammates like what we've got that we're able to delegate to very smart people, and they kind of feed me the information, and we adjust as we need," Knaus continued. "So it's really not me who's the one that's it, it's all the guys. It's all the people we've got at HMS, we've got at the shop, the guys we've got to travel weekly with the 48 team."
NASCAR's fan base has remained strong, with TV ratings rebounding this season after back-to-back years of decline. Most analysts blame noticeably smaller crowds at the track and plummeting merchandise sales on economic conditions. Foreclosures, higher bills and gas prices, as well as soaring job cuts across all sectors, have left NASCAR fans feeling the economic pinch.
The economic times are tough for many Americans, and destined to get tougher. The sports world won't be spared. NASCAR is just the first of the big-four sports to feel the pinch.
While NASCAR is striving to lower costs, such as eliminating all testing, the sport is team oriented. It takes a lot of players to field just one NASCAR Cup car. The sport will never go back to its prior days.
The strong will survive and the weak will get out ... or merge. Being in NASCAR is like being in Las Vegas. As long as your money holds out, it's a great place to be. When the money is gone, you are on your way out the door.
Next week: The Fast, Brief Life of Lee Roy Yarbrough
Racing trivia question: Which old-time driver was often called, "The Wilkes County Wildcat?"
Last week's question: Which Series will Sam Hornish race in 2009? Hornish will continue to race in the Cup Series.
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