Throughout much of the 1970s, Richard Petty in his No. 43 Plymouth or Dodge and David Pearson in the familiar Wood Brothers Racing Mercury battled for victory after victory at race tracks across the nation.
With 305 NASCAR Cup Series victories and 10 championships between them, both stock car racing legends came from humble beginnings.
Petty, the tall, lanky farm boy from Level Cross, N.C., spent his formative years raising tomatoes and cotton and riding bicycles with cousin and future crew chief Dale Inman.
Petty ran his first race in the NASCAR Convertible division on July 12, 1958, and made his Cup Series debut six days later at Canadian National Exposition Speedway in Toronto. He finished 17th in a race his dad won. It was the first of his 1,184 Cup Series starts.
Petty won seven Cup Series championships with the first coming in 1964 and the last in 1979. He also won 200 races in NASCAR’s premier division with the last coming at Daytona Int’l Speedway in 1984.
Pearson, a native of Spartanburg, S.C., climbed a tree to see his first stock car race at the fairgrounds in his hometown. He worked with his brother in a repair shop long enough to buy his first race car, a 1940 Ford.
Pearson began winning on dirt and asphalt and attracted the attention of Joe Littlejohn, the promoter at the Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds in Spartanburg from 1939 through 1966.
In part through Littlejohn’s encouragement, Pearson was given a ride by team owner Ray Fox for the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1961. Pearson won the race.
Pearson earned three NASCAR Cup Series championships. Two came for team owner Cotton Owens in 1966 and ’68, with the third while driving for Holman Moody in 1969. Throughout his 26-year career, Pearson started 574 Cup Series races and collected 105 wins.
On April 16, 1972, he joined Wood Brothers Racing, stepping away from running the full schedule to focus on the superspeedways. The following year, he won 11 of the 18 Cup Series races he entered.
Pearson earned 43 Cup Series victories for the team operated by Glen and Leonard Wood.
“David was one of the best drivers ever to sit in a race car,” Leonard Wood said. “He didn’t say anything. We would let me work on the race car and he wouldn’t tell me what it was doing. If he wasn’t complaining about anything at all, we knew he was going to be competitive. He never wanted us to know how much he could do on the race track. He would keep us in the dark and then go on and win the race.”
During the prime of his career, Pearson sported a broad smile, handsome, a well-tanned face and salt-and-pepper hair that prompted motorsports writers to dub him “The Silver Fox” because of his sly and calculating driving style.
Petty vs. Pearson duels were a thing of regularity during the 1970s. Petty and Pearson finished one-two 63 times during their careers with Pearson winning 33 to Petty’s 30.
When Pearson was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011, he praised his closest rival for making him a better driver.
“And I want to thank Richard Petty too,” Pearson said. “He’s probably the one that made me win as many as I did. I’d run hard because he’d make me run hard.”
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