Out in Spartanburg County S.C., a millionaire race car driver is taking it easy. David Pearson quit the Wood Brothers stock car team-or was fired last week depending on how you interpret the public statements-and now has time to build a landing strip on his 65-acre far, put up a hangar, finish off a 5 1/2-acre fish pond and get some grass to growing.
"I've been offered about three rides," Pearson said. "But I've got so much to do around here, I'm just going to wait a while before I do anything. I'll be back, but it might be a while. I'll come back with something, but I don't have to prove nothing to nobody. So why jump in a hand-me-down? I'll get me a car that can win."
David Pearson is a stock car legend. At 44, he has won a record 49 times on the super-speedways-tracks a mile or longer-and his career total of 103 big-league victories is second only to the 184 of Richard Petty.
More than the Cincinnatti Reds' dismissal of Manager Sparky Anderson, the dissolution of the Pearson-Wood Brothers team is a stunning surprise. Apparently, though, both the Reds and the Woods acted on the time-honored business principle of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. Anderson hadn't won a World Series in two years; Pearson had won 10 races and $283,000 three years ago, but dropped off to two victories the next year and four last season, good for only $152,000.
Pearson once had been glorified as the "Silver Fox" in deference to his graying hair and wiles behind the wheel. He would lay back, admirers said, and invent a way to win at the end.
No one who saw it ever will forget Person's work at the end of the 1976 Daytona 500, his game's World Series/Super Bowl. On the last lap, he passed Petty. Then Petty trying to regain the lead, collided with Pearson at 190 miles per hour. They went spinning toward the finish line, and the question was: Will one of them roll across the line, a dead winner?
They came to a safe stop. But Petty's car was stalled. Pearson had the presence of mind in the high-speed crash to push in the clutch, thereby keeping his engine going. At 15 mph, with his Wood Brothers Mercury bent six ways out of shape, Pearson lumbered across the finish line, a triumphant winner. The Silver Fox, indeed.
Pearson's last two years would be sensational work for anyone else. Petty last year did not win a single race, and the national champion, Cale Yarborough, won only one more superspeedway race than Pearson.
This year, Pearson had won nothing. In the Daytona 500 in mid-February, Pearson crashed the Wood Brothers Mercury early, piling into a batch of back-runners. At Darlington two weeks ago, Pearson tore up the Mercury again. After a pit stop, he drove away too soon-the lug nuts on the left-side wheels had been been loosened in preparation for a tire change-and the wheels fell off.
"It was amateurish," said a man who has known Pearson for a decade. "And it was the straw that broke the camel's back."
Before that embarrassment, Glen and Leonard Wood, of Stuart, Va., built a shining reputation for precision in car building and pit work. They did the pit work for one Indianapolis 500 team, helping Jimmy Clark win in 1965. Only the worst of racing teams could send a driver roaring out of the pits with his wheels coming off.
A couple days later came the announcement that Pearson had quit the Wood Brothers team.
"In essence, David was fired," said Pearson's friend, who asked anonymity. "The way it came out, the Wood brothers were trying to say they were very nice to David. They were quoted as saying David wouldn't mash the gas anymore. The nice way Glen Wood said that was, 'David doesn't have his heart in it.'
"On the other side of the coin, David didn't think their car was as strong as they think it is."
The whispers were that the Silver Fox was laying back in the pack too much, that he had his nerve for the 200 mph battle upfront. Glen Wood told a newspaperman that David had said publicly he didn't like the high-speed tracks of Daytona and Taladega. So how, Wood asked, could he order David to run up front with the other top drivers if he didn't want to?
For his part, David Pearson said, "I don't believe Glen said any of that stuff." Pearson distrusts reporters and says newspaper stories are inevitably distortions. "They're just trying to get an argument going between me and the Wood brothers. Ain't going to be any argument. I'd do anything in the world for them right now."
What happened, then? Had Pearson changed the way he drove the Mercury?
"I drove it the same way I always did," he said. "Glen or Leonard neither one have never yet told me I should stanon it."
After victory becomes a habit, defeat becomes an irritant.
"It just got to where we couldn't agree on things," Pearson said of the split. "The biggest thing was we weren't winning. They were making mistakes and so was I, and when you get to nit-picking back and forth, it's time to go your separate ways."
"We kind of felt the seven years we were together was a long time," said Leonard Wood, "and since David started with us at Darlington, maybe it would be a good time to end it there."
Did the Wood brothers believe Pearson had not been driving as hard as he could?
"David should answer that for you," Leonard Wood said. "I refuse to make a comment on that."
Pearson doesn't need to race again. He is independently wealthy now, thanks to his association with the Woods and profitable investments. But he will be back behind the wheel. Promoters will pay him big bucks, perhaps $10,000 a crack, to drive in their races. If they come up with a competitive car, he'll be there, the same as he has since he first left Whitney, S.C., at age 16 to go racing.
"And when he comes back, he'll go and drive harder than he has since he was teenager," said the friend of Pearson. "He has so much pride he'll do it just to pass that Wood Brothers Mercury."