When we were last in Thunder Valley, there was as much excitement the day before the Cup series race as there was for the main event itself. On Saturday, March 20, Bristol Motor Speedway's pit road was crawling with motorsports demigods. They had returned to the World's Fastest Half Mile for a NASCAR Legends exhibition race, the Scotts EZ Seed Showdown.
There was Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, even Chargin' Charlie Glotzbach, all donning fire suits and helmets and climbing into race cars. I ran into Harry Gant in the parking lot and asked him if he was fired up for the race. "I didn't come up here to lose," he said with a laugh, Skoal jammed into his gums.
It was the second year for the event and, looking back, we all kind of bought into the nostalgia so fast that we chose to ignore the brutal truth. Someone could get hurt. Like bad hurt. Sure, baseball drags out "old timers" for charity games, but Ozzie Smith and Bob Feller aren't likely to get killed on the field in Cooperstown.
Instead, we all chose to turn a bit of a blind eye to feel a little younger for 35 laps.
Then, just about the time we were settling in and smiling about the race, the reality of retirees racing minor-league cars on a big-league track showed up in Turn 2. Two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Larry Pearson, 56 at the time, spun lazily and slid down the banking toward the backstretch pits. Suddenly, he was T-boned by Glotzbach, 71, who had never slowed down. (See the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VACZrlnC27Q)
In an instant, the fun was gone. And for an instant, many of us thought that Pearson, the son of David, was also gone. Luckily he was alive, but in debilitating pain with a smashed pelvis, broken right hand and compound fracture in his lower left ankle. For those of you without medical degrees or first-aid merit badges, that means his ankle bones were sticking out of the skin.
A few weeks later Pearson gave an emotional interview to ESPN's Jerry Punch in which he wept and talked about better appreciating the life he felt so fortunate to still be living. Five months later, he still speaks with a voice that cracks when he talks about how thankful he is to be able to get out of bed every day.
What he doesn't talk about, what he doesn't want to burden his friends and fans with, is how difficult that once simple task is. He struggles to get to his crutches, which he only recently started to use. His rehabilitation continues, more than 150 days since the accident.
"He's still hurting," said David Pearson, a three-time Cup champ. "And the medical bills hurt about as bad as the injuries."
This is where we can help. Pearson's friends and family have organized an eBay auction with the goal of raising enough cash to help take some of the financial burden off the retired racer.
Up for auction are the custom-made fire suits that were worn by the competitors in the Bristol NASCAR Legends Race, including David Pearson, Yarborough, Gant, Dave Marcis and Pearson's old Nationwide Series rivals Tommy Houston, Jack Ingram and Jimmy Hensley. The uniforms are as-is, taken from the drivers as soon as the race was finished and put into storage. (Visit the eBay page here: http://shop.ebay.com/i.html?_kw=uniform&_kw=benefit&_kw=Larry&_kw=Pearson&_dmpt=US_Racing_Fan_Shop)
Also up for bid is the actual helmet worn by Larry Pearson in the race. Since March it has been autographed by 39 current Sprint Cup Series drivers, from Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Jeff Gordon to Tony Stewart. (See the helmet's eBay page here: http://cgi.ebay.com/Autographed-race-worn-helmet-benefit-Larry-Pearson-/150481140921?pt=US_Racing_Fan_Shop)
The auction ends Aug. 27. That's less than a week from now. Larry Pearson, one of the founding fathers of the Nationwide Series' glory years, gave us countless great racing memories and was merely trying to give us one more in March.
He just wanted to make us, the race fans, feel good. Now let's return the favor.