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Waid’s World: The Remarkable 1973 Cup Season for David Pearson, Wood Brothers

By the time the 1973 NASCAR Cup Series season rolled around, I had evolved into a motorsports writer who was no longer wet behind the ears – or so I thought.

In 1971, I had been a two-races-per-year reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin because it was the hometown newspaper for Martinsville Speedway.

By 1972, I had moved to The Roanoke (Va.) World-News, an afternoon paper (something virtually extinct today) that had a much larger circulation. It also had company cars and expense reports.

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It startled my imagination when I learned I was going to cover races at NASCAR tracks other than Martinsville and drive the company’s car and spend its money to do it.

So, I eagerly anticipated the 1972 season and felt the lure of covering races at North Wilkesboro Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Richmond Raceway, Atlanta Motor Speedway and Rockingham Speedway.

I walked into the middle of a war.

The battles raged between Richard Petty, the established star and multi-champion at Petty Enterprises, and Bobby Allison, the veteran who was aboard Junior Johnson’s No. 12 Chevrolet, the most popular car in America.

Allison viewed the Johnson ride as his best chance to win the Cup title. As good a competitor as he was, he found it difficult to stay employed. In fact, he lost his ride with the vaunted Holman-Moody team just a season earlier.

Petty wasn’t about to surrender the Cup throne to which he had ascended in 1971 – for the third time in his career.

The two raced hard against each other, especially at the short tracks, where they beat, banged, pushed and shoved so hard and so often that after each race, their cars looked like big lumps of bent and broken sheet metal.

They managed to be civil to each other on and off the track, but you couldn’t say that for their supporters.

It seemed that crowds at each race were composed of two camps, one for Petty and his Mopar wheels and the other for Allison, who was greeted at each race by shouts of “Chevy’s back!”

Depending on the results of each event, several members of each camp often became confrontational with catcalls, swearing or, uh, worse.

The war that was the 1972 season ended with Allison the winner of more races – 10 – but with Petty the champion for a fourth time.

For me, the season was the greatest learning experience of my young career. The Allison-Petty duel commanded so much media attention that I found myself doing more news gathering than ever.

That meant conducting interviews with competitors I had never met before – crewmen from both teams, for example – along with several other drivers and the major players.

By the time the season was over, both Allison and Petty were calling me by my first name. And so was Johnson.

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So, I felt more self-assured by 1973. At the same time, I knew my experience, while increased, was still limited. I had not covered races at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, for example.

Nor had I covered a race at Darlington Raceway.

That alone made me feel I still had much to learn. So, I got the nerve to ask my sports editor to allow me to travel to Darlington.

“Why didn’t you ask me last year?” he said. “Hell, it’s only two hours away.”

Which meant that the April 15 Rebel 500 was going to be my journalistic debut at Darlington.

I knew much of the track’s storied history. Businessman Harold Brasington went to the Indianapolis 500 and was so impressed he decided to build the South’s first superspeedway in Darlington.

His creation was a 1.366-mile oddball with wide, sweeping first and second turns and decidedly different tight third and fourth turns. They were the result of the lay of the land and a minnow pond.

NASCAR’s first superspeedway race was held on Labor Day in 1950. It was a historical event with an overflow crowd and an oversized field of cars – 75 that started the 500-mile race three abreast.

As you know, the Southern 500 has become one of NASCAR’s showcase races, steeped in history and tradition.

The Rebel 500 didn’t make its debut as Darlington’s spring race until 1960. It never reached the status of the Southern 500, of course, but it was still a noteworthy superspeedway race.

After all, it was at Darlington and even today, drivers will tell you that to win any race there is a coveted achievement.

In 1973 Allison and Petty didn’t crowd the headlines.

David Pearson did.

He was in his second year with Wood Brothers Racing, a firmly established and successful organization.

The team entered only 17 events in ’72, largely because the Woods didn’t pursue a championship. Their team competed only in superspeedway races because those events paid the most money.

The only exception was Martinsville, located just a short drive from the Woods shops in Stuart, Va. 

Plus, the team was paid a tidy sum of appearance money by the track’s president, wily H. Clay Earles.

Going into the Rebel 500, Pearson had won two of the three races the Woods entered. Only a blown engine in the Daytona 500 kept his record from being perfect.

Pearson was heavily favored at Darlington and, indeed, he won.

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But he did so in one of the most lopsided, wreck-infested races in NASCAR history.

There were 11 caution periods for 71 laps, mostly caused by wrecks. Only 14 cars were still running at the finish and only one, Pearson’s Mercury, was on the lead lap.

Pearson won by an incredible 13 laps. Remarkably, that wasn’t the Darlington record. That was held by Ned Jarrett, who won the 1965 Southern 500 by 14 laps.

Needless to say, I was not impressed with the race. I remember writing that Pearson had simply survived a demolition derby.

Perhaps I should have written something else.

After Darlington, Pearson won two more races in succession before he finished second at Charlotte Motor Speedway, after which he won four more races in a row. It meant he was victorious in nine of the first 10 races he entered.

He won two more times by the end of the season, thus his record for the year was 11 victories in 18 races.

The Woods achieved their goal of a successful financial season. Their winnings of $228,048 was topped only by Petty and Cale Yarborough – both of whom ran the full, 28-race schedule.

The Woods and Pearson continued to race together for almost another six full seasons. Their union is considered one of the most successful in NASCAR history.

The same can be said for their 1973 season.

About the author

Steve Waid has been in  journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.

Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing.  For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”

In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.

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Roxy D

David Pearson was the greatest ever. Only ran the full series three times and won the championship all three times. 105 wins in less than 600 starts. And he was a good guy.

DoninAjax

He ran 4 times to get the 3 rings for his sons and then stopped running for championships. As for the GOAT I am torn between David, Bobby and Richie.

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