The career of Pearson, “The Silver Fox,” is well-known. Second on the all-time wins list with 105 victories, the soft-spoken driver was already a household name in the mid 1960s. From an owner-driver during his debut in the second Daytona 500 in 1960 through his signing with Ray Fox and, later, Cotton Owens, Pearson had racked up eleven victories in his first five seasons. Though his first three wins came on superspeedways, the next eight came on short tracks like Bristol: half-mile dirt ovals in Myrtle Beach and Greenville-Pickens and paved bullrings like the third-mile Boyd Speedway on Tennessee’s opposite border. He finished the 1964 season 3rd in points, and but for circumstances off the track, would have been a likely contender for 1965.
As it turned out, the July 1965 race at Bristol signaled the end of a longstanding feud between NASCAR and Chrysler. As manufacturers churned out faster cars to compete on the circuit’s new larger and faster superspeedways, drivers became concerned that the racing had become too dangerous. Their concerns were well-founded: the 1964 season was marred by the on-track deaths of Joe Weatherly, the defending series champion, Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, the sport’s first superstar, and rising talent Jimmy Pardue. In an effort to reduce speeds, Bill France, Sr. mandated a new rule for the 1965 season that banned the Ford “hi-riser” engine and Chrysler’s dominant “hemi-head.”
While Ford accepted the changes, Ronney Householder, Chrysler’s Director of Competition, was furious. The new rules would require Chrysler’s factory drivers to run heavy cars with underpowered engines, putting them at a significant disadvantage. When a compromise wasn’t reached by the start of the 1965 Grand National Season, Chrysler boycotted the series, taking its factory drivers with them. This included Richard Petty, who turned his attention to a brief and ill-fated run on the drag racing circuit, and David Pearson.
Without the series’ biggest stars and fastest cars, ticket sales dragged through the first part of the 1965 season. Bill France’s gamble that Chevrolet would gain momentum hadn’t panned out, and Ford was on an unprecedented winning streak on the heels of 1961 series champion Ned Jarrett. In May, NASCAR reached a compromise with USAC, whose series rules were more forgiving to Chrysler’s “hemi” in an effort to attract NASCAR drivers. As part of the agreement, Chrysler could run in “hemi” in NASCAR, but only in models where it hadn’t been tested. Though Buck Baker managed this “impossible” feat, jamming a hemi into son Buddy’s Plymouth Fury at Daytona in July, it wasn’t until Bristol later that month that the Chrysler factory teams - and Pearson - returned.
Pearson started 12th in the 36-car field. The final starting spot went to independent driver Hollingsworth McMillion, who shortened his name to the much flashier “Worth McMillion.” The Virginian trailed the field early in his #80 1964 Pontiac until trouble broke out in the early laps. On Lap 9, Pearson was racing the Wood Brothers #21 1965 Ford of Marvin Panch for the 5th spot when the two made contact in Turn 3 and crashed. Walking down pit road under caution, Pearson crossed paths with Glen Wood. The two argued, and Wood threw a punch. Pearson was about to respond when crew members intervened.
Pearson and Panch occupied the final two spots in the finishing order. The next retiree was Raymond Carter, who was making the next-to-last start of his career in a backup 1964 Dodge for longtime independent Buddy Arrington. Carter’s #62 pulled behind the wall after 32 laps. 33rd went to future pace car driver Elmo Langley, then an owner-driver in his twelfth season on the tour. Langley’s #64 blew a head gasket one lap after Carter’s retirement. Rounding out the Bottom Five was 27-year-old Bobby Allison, who was making just the 12th start of his NASCAR career. It turned out to be the final Grand National start for Allison’s team owner Ed Grady, who fielded his #09 Ford.
Richard Petty, who also rejoined the series at Bristol, started outside-pole in his #43 Plymouth and finished 17th with a busted differential. Ned Jarrett went on to win.
Pearson went on to run 13 of the 1965 season’s final 21 races, winning on the half-mile dirt track in Columbia, South Carolina and at the Richmond Fairgrounds, then secure his first of three series championships in 1966. Pearson would go on to compete in 574 top-tier NASCAR races and finish last just five more times. Only three of these last-place runs happened on track: the other two were post-race disqualifications for technical infractions in 1968. The 1965 last-place run was also his only one at Bristol, a track where he’d win five times in just 20 starts.
*This was the first last-place finish for the #6 in a Grand National Series race since April 11, 1965, when Jim Conway’s 1964 Ford lost the clutch after the opening lap of the Atlanta 500 at the Atlanta International Raceway.
*To date, Pearson’s run at Bristol remains the only last-place run by the #6 in a Cup race at that track. In fact, the #6 wouldn’t finish last in Cup again until September 11, 1977 at Richmond, when Rick Newsom’s unsponsored Chevrolet had an oil leak after 112 laps of the Capital City 400.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
36) #6-David Pearson / 8 laps / crash
35) #21-Marvin Panch / 8 laps / crash
34) #62-Raymond Carter / 32 laps / vibration
33) #64-Elmo Langley / 33 laps / head gasket
32) #09-Bobby Allison / 39 laps / overheating
Special thanks to Greg Fielden’s epic book series “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing” for providing the details behind this race.