David Pearson, NASCAR legend often overshadowed but rarely outrun

David Pearson was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in its second class, in 2011. Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Everything David Pearson did came with a "but." And a butt. A cigarette butt.

On Monday, Pearson died following a lengthy illness. He was 83.

David Pearson might have been the greatest stock car driver who ever lived, but ... he wasn't spit-shine polished and made for TV like Richard Petty. David Pearson won 105 races and three championships, but ... he rarely ran a full season's schedule to qualify for championships like Richard Petty, who always did. David Pearson probably should have been in the first NASCAR Hall of Fame class, but ... there were only five spots available and only two for drivers not named Richard Petty.

Those first two points, Pearson was cool with those. Cowboy hats and sunglasses were never his style and neither were interviews. Hell, he reasoned, what did talking have to do with racing? "Richard and Ned [Jarrett] and Darrell [Waltrip], they ran to the cameras, always ready to talk, you know," Pearson said in October 2009. "When I saw those cameras, my first instinct was to run away from them."

As for the schedule, it paid way more money to skip the little races and run only the big ones, the 500-milers with the big trophies and even bigger purses. "I had to save my energy, man," he would joke, pointing to his 574 career starts versus Petty's 1,184 and 105 wins versus Petty's 200. "If I'm gonna be out there flying around, I might as well do it when they pay the most money, right?"

But that third "but," missing out on the inaugural Hall of Fame, that bothered Pearson. A lot. The day that class was announced, Oct. 14, 2009, he'd spent the entire day sitting in the Charlotte Convention Center, on a bench right outside the room where the committee debated and voted. He had ridden up that morning with one of the men on that panel -- fellow Spartanburg, South Carolina, racer Cotton Owens, the car owner for whom he'd won the first of his three titles.

Sitting on that bench, his leg bouncing up and down, Pearson repeated something he'd said to me several times over the years. He talked about how the perception of his legend, the Silver Fox, had changed.

"When I first stopped driving [in 1986], I think people forgot who the hell David Pearson was. But now, I hear my name a lot. I see it a lot. I think people know who I am and that I was pretty good at racing, you know?"

In 1997, when his beloved Darlington Raceway (he's still the race track's all-time champ with 10 wins) flipped the front and backstretches, he was asked to run a ceremonial lap in a pace car alongside another driven by Cale Yarborough. When the green flag dropped, Pearson dropped the hammer of the street car filled with Pontiac executives. The crowd, realizing what was happening, leapt to its feet and roared. After completing the lap at well more than 100 mph, Pearson was approached by Darlington public relations director and close friend Russell Branham, demanding an explanation. Pearson, without a hint of humor, replied, "I wasn't gonna let that little sumbitch beat me."

In 1998, NASCAR celebrated its 50th anniversary by unveiling its list of the 50 greatest drivers. Pearson wasn't merely on the list, he was a headliner. In 1999, Sports Illustrated put Pearson on the cover of its NASCAR preview as "Driver of the Century." He made sure some copies found their way into the hands of his old rivals, including Yarborough and especially Petty. Over the next decade, he accepted invitations to fan events, turned more laps at vintage race car events and raced in dirt-track events well into his 70s.

He told stories about the 1976 Daytona 500, the greatest finish of all time, when he beat Richard Petty by grinding his wrecked Wood Brothers Mercury through the infield grass like a snowplow. He signed autographs. "I've even figured out how to enjoy it all, a little," he joked on that day in 2009.

Sitting outside that convention center meeting room, while Owens passionately stated his case for his friend behind those closed doors, Pearson was convinced his name would be called that afternoon. He was sure of it.

But it wasn't. It was Junior Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Bill France Sr. ... and Bill France Jr. And Richard Petty.

The announcement was made at 4 p.m. At 4:10 p.m., he politely chatted with the media. "Somebody was going to get left out. Looks like today it was David Pearson, don't it?" He said he wasn't disappointed. He was lying. "Not really. If they don't like me, they're going to vote for someone else."

By 4:20 p.m., he was out the door and headed down the street, shuffling past the line of satellite news trucks and toward the massive construction site where the NASCAR Hall of Fame was being built. I followed him. It was raining. He sensed I was behind him, turned around and just started talking. "As soon as they said Bill Junior's name, I knew it. Big Bill was already in, and they weren't going to not put Dale, Junior or Richard in there."

I told him that Petty was angry. That he'd assumed Pearson was in with him. In the commotion of the announcement, he thought Pearson's name had been called. When he was told he would not be going into the Hall with his greatest rival, the King of Stock Car Racing replied, "Anybody that won 105 races and didn't get in -- somebody ain't adding right."

Pearson smiled at the story, turned to walk away, jammed his hands into his pockets, stopped and then turned to face me again. He held out a pack of cigarettes and a parking lot ticket. "I'll tell you what. I'm not in this year. But ..."

There was the David Pearson "but."

"But I can't find my damn car keys."

The Silver Fox -- the Driver of the Century, the owner of 105 wins, 113 poles and three championships, the cigarette lighter on the dashboard and one half of the greatest rivalry in American motorsports history -- gestured with his hand to let me know not to follow him any further. Then he vanished into the rain.

I snapped a photo with my Blackberry. It was grainy. It was low resolution. It was sad. It was also fitting. No, he wasn't going to be one of the names in the NASCAR Hall of Fame's first class in 2010, but ... he was surely going to steal the show whenever that second class was announced.

A year and a half later, that's exactly what he did.

As I walked back to join the celebration at the convention center, I heard tires squealing, and a big ol' sedan fishtailed out of a parking lot and rocketed up the on-ramp to the Interstate and back to Spartanburg.

The Silver Fox was back in the wind.