1961 Pontiac Catalina - The David Pearson Story
David Pearson is described by many historians as one of the greatest drivers in auto racing history. He won 105 Grand National events; the 1966, 1968, and 1969 Winston Cup Championships; and the 1976 Daytona 500. Although most people associate Pearson with the Dodge 426 Hemis he drove for Cotton Owens in the mid-'60s and the Mercurys he drove for the Wood brothers in the '70s, he first reached national attention driving a Pontiac for Florida race-car builder Ray Fox, Sr. in 1961.
Pearson was born on December 22, 1934, in Whitney, South Carolina. He began his racing career in 1952 at a hobby race in Woodruff, South Carolina, where he piloted a '40 Ford to a First Place finish and a $13 prize. He worked at a gas station and hung around the speed shops of Spartanburg, South Carolina's race-car owners, including Bud Moore and Cotton Owens-two names already familiar to High Performance Pontiac readers.
In 1960, thanks to friends and family, Pearson began saving money for his first NASCAR Grand National race car. Shortly thereafter, Pontiac legend and NASCAR racer Jack Smith gave Pearson his first chance at fame and struck a deal with the young man, selling him a 1-year-old '59 No. 67 Chevrolet for $3,000. Pearson raced the Chevy in 22 NASCAR Grand National events during the season, and earned three Top Five wins, and a prize total of $5,030. It wasn't enough to survive, but it was enough to get him recognized as an up-and-coming driver. NASCAR agreed: They awarded Pearson the '60 NASCAR Grand National Rookie of the Year.
In February 1961, Pearson (accompanied by Spartanburg-based NASCAR promoter Joe Littlejohn) drove to Daytona Beach, and Tony Lavonti (owner of the '60 Daytona 500-winning '60 Chevrolet) offered him the job to drive the No. 66 '61 Pontiac Catalina in the Daytona qualifier on February 24 and the Daytona 500 on February 26. It was Pearson's first time professionally behind the steering wheel of a Pontiac. He placed 17th in the qualifier and 21st in the 500. On March 26, 1961, based on his growing reputation, he piloted a No. 26 Catalina for the Atlanta 500 and finished in 40th place.
He returned to Spartanburg to his daily job at a local body shop, and continued to frequent Moore's and Owens' race-car garages. In May 1961, Fox, a Daytona engine builder and competitor to Smokey Yunick, brought a '61 Pontiac Catalina No. 3 race car, built by him and sponsored by the Daytona Kennel Club, to Charlotte and asked Moore who would be a good driver. Moore responded, "David Pearson," and history was soon made.
On May 28, 1961, Pearson buckled into the driver seat of the No. 3 Pontiac Catalina at the Charlotte World 600 and took on the giants of NASCAR, including Fireball Roberts (who placed Second in his Yunick-prepared No. 22 '61 Pontiac Catalina), Marvin Panch (in the Yunick-prepared '60 Pontiac Catalina), Jim Paschel, Jack Smith, Bob Welborn, Junior Johnson, Joe Weatherly, Ralph Earnhardt, Tommy Irwin, and Bob Burdick-all in '61 Catalinas. Pearson commanded the race. He led 255 of the 400 1.5-mile laps in the grueling 5-hour, 22-minute, 29-second event in front of 46,538 paid attendees. He was declared the winner. The press was quick to give Pearson a new name, "David the Giant Killer."
The Daytona Firecracker 250, on July 4, 1961, featured Pearson driving the '61 No. 3 Pontiac Catalina again, for the 100-lap, 250-mile race, and he took the lead for the last two laps of the 1-hour, 37-minute, 13-second event. The Daytona Beach Morning Journal gave Pearson its front page headline, "Pearson Smashes 250 Record," and went on to say, "David Pearson, 26, a comparative newcomer in the fast NASCAR circuit, won by a scant car length, and averaged 154.294 mph for the 100 laps. It was a new world record for a 250-mile auto race."
On September 17, 1961, at the Atlanta International Raceway for the Dixie 400, Pearson raced Fox's No. 3 Pontiac Catalina for a third victorious time that year, and was the first to complete 267 laps on the 1.5-mile track, ahead of Johnson, Roberts, Jack Smith, Welborn, Woodie Smith, and Panch-all in '61 Pontiacs.
It was a phenomenal year for the rising young superstar. His Grand National prize total was $49,580, surpassing Roberts by $7,000, which put him in Second Place for the most money won in NASCAR in 1961.
In 1962, Pearson raced '62 Catalinas exclusively (421 SD/405hp cars), driving for Fox at Daytona, Darlington, Spartanburg, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Bristol; for Owens at Bristol, Darlington, and Charlotte; for Julian Petty at North Wilkesboro; and for Moore at Atlanta. Although he didn't earn any First Place finishes, he took home $15,575 for the season.
In 1963, GM forced Pontiac out of professional auto racing, and many previously loyal Pontiac race-car owners, builders, and drivers turned to Chrysler's sponsorships and its new Dodge 426 Hemi engines. Pearson had already formed a strong alliance with Owens, and the two men embarked on an amazing journey that earned them the NASCAR Grand National Championship in 1966. He went on to win the NASCAR Grand Championship two more times that decade-in 1968 and 1969, driving Fords both times.
In 1971, Pontiac race-car owners Ray Nichels and Paul Goldsmith (working without "official" Pontiac support, although Pontiac Engineering backdoored the engines) teamed with sponsor Chris Vallo, and asked Pearson to pilot a '71 GTO down NASCAR's superspeedways. It was an opportunity he couldn't pass up, especially since a money dispute with Holman-Moody made Pearson open for a sponsor. He debuted the GTO and its purpose-built 366 ci Ram Air V motor at Talladega on May 16, 1971, but the Ram Air V engine couldn't keep from blowing head gaskets. He only completed 19 laps of the 188-lap Winston 500.
His second race with the GTO was on May 30, 1971, at the Charlotte 600. The GTO made only 94 laps before it succumbed to an oil leak. Pearson piloted the Pontiac for three more races: June 13, 1971, at Michigan International Speedway for the Motor State 400, where the ignition gave out after 68 of 197 laps; September 6, 1971, at Darlington Raceway for the Southern 500, where the engine failed after 50 of 367 laps; and December 12, 1971, at Texas World Speedway for the Texas 500, where the engine overheated at lap 50 of 250. The season was over. Even with Pearson's incredible talents, Nichels, Goldsmith, and Vallo were unable to return Pontiac to NASCAR's winner list.
Pearson continued in NASCAR, winning the '76 Daytona 500 (his duel with Petty during this race is considered one of NASCAR's finest). He retired from NASCAR's Winston Cup Series in 1986, after 574 races, 135,020 laps, $2,836,220 in winnings, and 146,483.8 race miles logged on the tracks.
Today, Pearson lives in Spartanburg and rarely talks about his Pontiac days. After being introduced to him through Jack Smith's son, Lance, Pearson said he would enjoy talking to High Performance Pontiac magazine about his two-and-one-half seasons racing Pontiacs.
High Performance Pontiac: You come from Spartanburg, South Carolina-a town known for Pontiac NASCAR greats Cotton Owens, Jack Smith, and Bud Moore. How did you become involved in the NASCAR Grand National Series?
David Pearson: I bought my first NASCAR race car from Jack Smith. I met him through Bud Moore, whom I'd known about four years. I'd go over there and hang around the shop, look around, and see what I could find out about old cars, and that's where I met him.
HPP: Were they both running Pontiacs at the time?
DP: No. They started with Chevrolets. But when Jack Smith bought a '60 Pontiac to race in NASCAR, he sold me his 1-year-old '59 Chevrolet.
HPP: How did you come up with the money to buy your first NASCAR race car from Smith?
DP: I worked at a service station, and a motorcycle policeman named Ralph Sawyer said to me, "Why don't we start a fan club for you and raise money like we did for Cotton. We'll get enough money to buy Jack's car." He rode his motorcycle all day long, and started bringing me dollars and change-whatever he could get from people. I couldn't give the money back because I didn't know where he got it and that forced me to go buy that car. I didn't get nearly enough to buy it, of course, so I got the rest of the money from my dad.
HPP: When did racers in Spartanburg start talking about how Pontiacs had taken over NASCAR?
DP: Cotton Owens was the first to start talking about how good a race car the Pontiac was. The people in Spartanburg raised money for him, and he bought a '58 Pontiac that he ran at Daytona. That's the first time I heard about a Pontiac winning in NASCAR.
HPP: Was Cotton Owens someone you looked up to?
DP: I'd say so. I'd always go over to his place and do the same thing: look around and see what I could find out about cars. He was really nice. In fact, we're really close friends now.
HPP: Did either Smith or Owens offer you a position on their teams when you expressed an interest in becoming a driver in the NASCAR Grand Nationals?
DP: Cotton did, and we won the NASCAR championship together in 1966. But Bud Moore was the one who talked to Ray Fox when Ray came to Charlotte in 1961 and didn't have a driver for his Pontiac. Of course, Ray didn't know me and I didn't really know Ray. Bud says he told Ray to give me a chance because I had won a bunch of races around here on dirt tracks.
HPP: Do you remember the first time you met Ray Fox?
DP: He called me and asked me if I wanted to drive his Pontiac and I said, "Yes." I threw everything down and took off for Charlotte. That was the first time I met him.
HPP: What did you recall the first time behind the wheel of the Ray Fox No. 3 Pontiac Catalina at the Charlotte World 600?
DP: I went out and practiced, and I came in and Ray asked me how it felt. I said, "Ray, I don't know. How are you supposed to feel? I've never run this fast before in my life." I had always run in the short dirt tracks.
HPP: What do you remember of the Charlotte World 600?
DP: I started third and I took the lead the first lap. I led about three-quarters of that race-about 400 miles they said.
HPP: How was the Pontiac built?
DP: It was a Catalina two-door coupe. It had a 389ci, a four-barrel carb, and a four-speed on the floor. It felt good, and it drove good.
HPP: The Charlotte World 600 had an unusual ending. Do you remember what it was?
DP: Of course I do. I had a bunch of flats that day. I don't know exactly how many, but I was running over stuff and blowing tires. In fact, I won the race on three tires. The last two laps I ran on a flat tire and sparks were flying everywhere when I crossed the finish line, from what I was told.
HPP: You were a second-year driver at the Charlotte 600. Did the starting line scare you?
DP: No way. We lined up ready to go and I looked at that Pontiac and said, "This car doesn't know if Fireball's driving it, or Joe Weatherly, or Jack Smith, or Cotton Owens. It doesn't know who's driving it. If they can do it, I can do it."
HPP: How did your win at Charlotte change your life?
DP: It fixed me right up. Right after that, Ray Fox asked me if I wanted to go to Daytona and run there. So I went down there and ran the Firecracker 250, and won the race. And then I went to Atlanta and won the Atlanta Dixie 400-all in the Ray Fox Pontiac No. 3 Catalina. Nobody had ever won three big races in one year. I was the first one to do that.
HPP: After winning the World 600, did Pontiac become your street car, too?
DP: It sure did. I won the pace car, a new '61 Pontiac Bonneville convertible, for winning the race. I took it as part of my purse.
HPP: What do you remember about the 1961 Firecracker 250?
DP: If I remember correctly, Fireball ran Second to me. I knew I drafted him toward the end of the race. I caught Fred Lorenzen and after I did that, I went on to pass Fireball, then Fred, at the end of the race. I won that one.
HPP: Of your three major victories in 1961, which was your favorite?
DP: Naturally, the first one. People ask me to this day, "What was your favorite race?" and, of course, the first one always pops into my mind.
HPP: In 1962, you ran Owens' No. 6 Pontiac Catalina for the very first time at Bristol, Darlington, and Charlotte. Did you have to quit your job at the body shop to race for him?
DP: When I went to drive for Cotton, I was already working for him every day at his shop. I did most of the welding on the cars.
HPP: Do you remember how you met Ray Nichels?
DP: The first time I met Ray Nichels, he was in Spartanburg at a Christmas party in 1961. He was there signing up Cotton and other drivers to run Pontiacs in 1962. Somebody invited me to the party.
HPP: Ray Nichels approached you in 1971 to run his GTO in the Winston Cup Series. What do you remember of the GTO?
DP: It was Nichels' and Paul Goldsmith's car. They came down to Spartanburg and asked me to do some testing in the '71 GTO. We ran fairly well, but we had a lot of problems with that engine. They'd build the Pontiac, run it, take it off the engine stand, put it on the dyno, and it would always show pretty good horsepower. But when they took it out and put it in the GTO and we'd go to a racetrack, it would always blow a head gasket.
HPP: What was your favorite Pontiac?
DP: The '61 Bonneville convertible I earned for winning the Charlotte World 600 was really nice and I enjoyed it.
HPP: What do you think of Pontiacs, looking back 47 years?
DP: The Pontiacs were good to me, no doubt about it, and I enjoyed running with them. Pontiac's the car that put me on the map when I got started. I think the world of Pontiacs-I really do.
HPP: Is there anything else you want HPP readers to know about your career?
DP: I can't complain about nothin'. Racing was good to me. Throughout my whole career, I was never hurt and I never rode in an ambulance. Now I've been roped up quite a bit, but I've never had a bone broken. My whole career was really good. I don't know of a thing I would change if I had to do it over.
Pearson and the Ram Air V GTO
Driver David Pearson at Texas World Speedway in 1971. The Nichels Engineering GTO was introduced as a No. 33 car (not shown). Shortly thereafter, for the final race of 1971, the GTO gained STP sponsorship, a red paint job, and was renumbered to 17. photo courtesy of conversations with a winner-the ray nichels story.
According to William LaDow in his book, Conversations with a Winner-The Ray Nichels Story, "Ray was thrilled to be able to put Pearson behind the wheel of the Nichels Engineering Pontiac GTO in 1971. Pearson and he had been friends back to the time that Nichels Engineering was GM-Pontiac's 'house' stock builder, when David began driving Pontiacs for Ray Fox and Cotton Owens.
"At the start of the '71 NASCAR season, Nichels Engineering had already begun campaigning Fred Lorenzen in the No. 99 STP Plymouth, while also campaigning A.J. Foyt and Bobby Unser in Plymouths in USAC. In the meantime, Nichels-knowing that NASCAR was in the process of trying to mandate smaller engines-began developing the 366ci Pontiac engine in an effort to be ahead of the curve for 1972. Nichels' intention was to split his stock-car building business between GM and Chrysler in 1972.
"Just as financing arrangements were being drawn up between Nichels Engineering and Chris Vallo, a Highland, Indiana, entrepreneur whose company name, CV Enterprises, sported the slogan 'You Name It' next to its logo, Pearson left Holman-Moody over a pay dispute right after the May 2, 1971, running of the 'Rebel 400' at Darlington. Nichels signed Pearson and had him in the No. 17 Nichels Engineering/CV Enterprises Pontiac GTO just 14 days later, racing at Talladega in the Winston 500."

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