Commentary

Pearson takes trip down memory lane with promotional spin at Darlington

Who was that climbing into the famed No. 21 Purolator Mercury at Darlington? None other than David Pearson, who proved he can still wrestle a car at 110 mph ... without power steering ... at 73.

Updated: April 17, 2008, 1:21 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

David Pearson and Carl Edwards Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for Darlington RacewayDavid Pearson leads Carl Edwards during a five-lap sprint promoting the May 10 race at Darlington.

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- David Pearson climbed through the window of the maroon and white No. 21 Purolator Mercury parked on pit road at Darlington Raceway on Wednesday, grabbed one of the five pieces of Wrigley Spearmint gum taped to the dash and fired up the engine just as though it were 1973.

"Did you need any help getting in?" said Leonard Wood, Pearson's former crew chief with the famed Wood Brothers.

No, Pearson didn't need any help getting in the car, the same one in which he won at Darlington for the first time almost 38 years ago. He didn't have any problems driving around the track nicknamed "Too Tough To Tame," though he had no power steering and tires that were older than most of the current drivers in the Sprint Cup series.

The 73-year-old Pearson, dressed in blue jeans, a plaid shirt and tennis shoes, flew down the front straightaway at about 110 mph in a five-lap publicity stunt to promote next month's race at Darlington.

[+] EnlargeDavid Pearson
AP PhotoA familiar sight: David Pearson celebrated in Victory Lane 105 times in his career.

He didn't take the checkered flag. Carl Edwards, dressed in his red fire suit and driving a duplicate of the No. 99 car he has taken to Victory Lane three times this season, snared that.

"Only because I didn't know we were on the last lap," Pearson said. "If he said one lap to go I'd have passed him."

Pearson may have lost a step or two over the years, but he hasn't lost his edge. He still believes he is the best driver that lived. His 105 career wins, three championships and amazing 18.2 winning percentage is tough to argue against.

He did this despite driving most of his career on a part-time schedule like Mark Martin.

"Ain't no telling," Pearson said when asked how many titles and races he would have won had he committed to a full schedule.

Nobody was better at Darlington than the "Silver Fox," who has a record 10 wins and 12 poles at the 1.366-mile track.

It didn't take much to convince him to return there to take a spin in the car in which he won 11 times in 18 races in '73.

He was so excited once the 429 horsepower hemi engine fired that he pulled onto the track well ahead of the scripted schedule, leaving Darlington's public relations staff scrambling to get Edwards on the track behind him.

"He was so excited when we first started talking about this that he asked me if we could get some softer tires and cheat it up, 'cause he might just go for it," said Eddie Wood, who now runs the struggling Wood Brothers organization.

Edwards got a glimpse of Pearson's competitive spirit on the plane ride from Concord, N.C., via Pearson's home in Spartanburg, S.C.

"After spending a few minutes with him … that guy has a fire in him," Edwards said.

Leonard Wood laughed, saying Pearson still believes he could beat most drivers on the circuit today.

"I don't see why I couldn't," Pearson said with a familiar grin.

Leonard Wood played a big role in making Wednesday happen. He took the car that had been in the Darlington Raceway museum for almost 35 years back to the Wood Brothers' shop in Stuart, Va., and prepared it for what was supposed to be a few leisurely laps.

He was amazed that, with the exception of changing the battery, restoring the clutch, cleaning the fuel lines and making sure the brakes worked, the car fired as easily as it did in its prime.

For the most part the car was exactly as it was, down to the treaded tires, after it was retired following the final event in 1974. Paint that was peeling under the driver's door next to the muffler hadn't been touched up. Gum was taped to the dash, one piece for every 100 miles, just as Pearson demanded.

The cigarette lighter remained positioned next to the tachometer.

Yes, the cigarette lighter.

That evoked memories of the day Buddy Baker pulled alongside the No. 21 and noticed Pearson puffing away as he was known to do.

"When Buddy saw that, he knew he was in trouble," Leonard Wood recalled with a laugh.

Edwards, 28, had heard these legendary stories and had seen the famous car in old television footage. Watching the No. 21 pull alongside him to pass coming down the front straightaway on the third lap was like watching a "piece of history."

"I'll never forget that," Edwards said. "That was so cool."

As Edwards climbed out of his car, a little embarrassed he had taken the checkered flag from this living legend, he bypassed his victory backflip, pointed at Pearson and quipped, "He said he's going to do a backflip."

On this day, when time seemingly stood still, one could almost imagine he could.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter