Pearson looks right at home in NHRA
CONCORD, N.C. -- The NHRA's Nitro Alley is the motorsports version of the midway. Unlike the hard card-only worlds of the more high-profile racing garages, anyone with a ticket is welcome to come in and stand alongside teams as they rebuild engines and burn eyeballs with clouds of nitrous.
You never know who you might see, from kids to grandmas to an alarmingly large number of dudes that look like pirates. On Friday afternoon at Charlotte's zMax Dragway, the most eagle-eyed race fan might've even spotted a Silver Fox.
Easing his way through the masses, taking in the smells and polishing off a tray of nachos, was NASCAR legend David Pearson, still uber-cool at the age of 74. The second winningest driver in NASCAR history, three-time Cup Series champion and a shoo-in member of next May's inaugural Hall of Fame class. "I wouldn't go that far," he said, attempting to be humble. Then he smiled and winked. "But I think I've got a pretty case built up, don't you?"
Pearson made the drive up from his lifelong hometown of Spartanburg, S.C., where he still builds and races everything from dirt late models to tricked-out aftermarket motorcycles. Two-wheelers are what had the 105-time NASCAR winner in the NHRA paddock on Friday, invited by Pro Stock Motorcycle competitor Karen Stoffer. The two share a common sponsor, Speed Dawg Racing & Hot Rod Gear, and despite her SoCal straight-line upbringing, she jumped at the chance to meet the Fox.
"C'mon over here, David," Stoffer said as her guest approached, patting the seat of her Geico Suzuki.
He joked "Looks a little narrow for my back end, doesn't it?" But as he settled in, Pearson instinctively leaned in and tucked his head behind the tiny windshield of the bike that just two hours later would unleash a qualifying speed of 185 mph.
"I don't know, you look pretty comfortable sitting there."
He stretched his fingers out over the throttle. "I am."
During his Paul Bunyan-like life, Pearson has raced nearly everything with an engine, legally and illegally. He started competing as a teenager on the short tracks of upstate South Carolina, where he can still be found in the summertime, trading paint with weekend warriors a quarter his age. But amazingly, Friday marked his first appearance at what he called "a big-time drag racing deal."
"That doesn't matter," Stoffer said as she accepted a hello hug from the man who won four races and a mind-bending 14 poles at Lowe's Motor Speedway, which can be seen from zMax Dragway. "Fast is fast. If David had decided to go drag racing, he would've won here, too."
Back home they'll tell you that a long time ago he did, showing up at the legendary and now-defunct Spartanburg Dragway, which at one time boasted no less than 25 NHRA national event champions. In 1965 NASCAR outlawed Dodge's 426 Hemi engine, so the sport's two biggest young stars (and future greatest rivals), Pearson and Richard Petty, abandoned oval racing for the drag strip. Petty raced his infamous Plymouth Barracuda No. 43 jr. "Outlawed Special." Pearson and team owner Cotton Owens rumbled the quarter-mile in, believe it or not, an ancestor of Clark Griswold's family truckster.
"It was a Dodge Dart station wagon with a Hemi mounted in the back. We named it the Cotton Picker. That sucker would go. You could adjust it so that there was so much weight in the back that it would do wheelies all the way down the strip."
"How'd you do?" Stoffer asked, already knowing the answer.
"We didn't lose a whole lot," he said with a grin. "But when NASCAR brought the Hemi, back we went back pretty quick." He also won three of the next four Cup championships.
These days the Fox limits his drag racing experience to the roads in and around Spartanburg. Just don't ask him for too many details. "I found out that a friend of mine sent his engine off to a shop in Wisconsin to have it worked on. So I didn't tell him, but I took mine out and sent it up to Michigan to the people who build all of Harley-Davidson's racing bikes. I spent about $15,000 just to make sure I could outrun him."
How fast will it do, David?
"200 or so."
"Yeah," Stoffer interjected, "And for a long time. My bike only does that for seven seconds."
What's your friend's name, David?
"I don't want to say because I don't want to get him in trouble."
Where do you race?
"Wherever he wants to. And wherever we won't get caught."
Then, sensing that he might be giving up too much information about his 74-year-old "Fast and Furious" lifestyle, he cut the conversation short.
"Alright, good to see y'all. Where can I get some ice cream?"
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.