UPON HEARING of the death of David Pearson, no less an authority on badasses than Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweeted, "What a badass. RIP." Indeed, Pearson, who raced against Junior's old man, exuded cool; 6 feet tall, part Cherokee and fully rugged, he was the literal embodiment of the phrase tall, dark and handsome. Pearson also had an undeniable McQueen streak in him: He insisted his cars have a working cigarette lighter so he could enjoy a butt when the caution flag flew. Richard Petty once remarked that "Pearson's crew has to wake him up to get him to go race."
One of the great pranksters and personalities that NASCAR has ever seen, Pearson rarely showed that side to the public. He had dropped out of school at 16 to work in a South Carolina mill—he told people he got a degree in "skinning quills, pushing a broom and running an elevator" from Whitney Mill University—and he didn't want his lack of education to show. In that sense Pearson was the opposite of Petty, who masterfully worked the press. The two were great rivals: Petty won 200 races, Pearson 105—but in half as many starts. For much of his career, Pearson drove the iconic 21 car for the Wood Brothers, who preferred to focus on the major events. So while the King competed week in and week out, the Silver Fox ran a full slate in just four seasons. He won the championship in three of them.