In 1961, the World 600 was run for the first time in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway and won by a nearly unknown driver from Spartanburg.
The Charlotte Observer called him “a brash 26-year-old newcomer to big-league stock car racing.”
You know him as David Pearson.
Pearson’s first victory in NASCAR’s top series turned out to be only the beginning. He would win 104 more times – second only to Richard Petty – and is always in the conversation when people talk about the best driver ever.
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Pearson’s first big win came in the second World 600. The 1961 race is also known for a horrific accident that cost driver Reds Kagle his left leg when a guardrail impaled his racecar.
What is now called the Coca-Cola 600 will run for the 56th time on Sunday.
The first World 600 came in June 1960, delayed several weeks so the track would be finished. The race settled into its normal May slot in 1961 and had one of its greatest fields ever.
At one point in the 1961 600, the four drivers leading the race were, in order: Pearson, Petty, Fireball Roberts and Ned Jarrett. All four are now members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s grandfather, Ralph Earnhardt, ran in the race, too, as did Junior Johnson and Bobby Allison.
Times were different then. Speedy Thompson, one of the drivers, was spotted stuck in traffic less than an hour before the race began.
The track was packed: 46,538 people showed up.
Pearson won about $30,000 for his victory, including a $10 bonus – yes, a whole $10 – for each lap that he led.
Racing was a very regional sport in 1961. Of the 53 drivers who competed, 27 came from either North or South Carolina.
And wow, was it ever dangerous. Kagle, from Green Belt, Md., had an accident that was a terrible reminder of that. After blowing a tire, his 1961 Ford tore up about 50 feet of guardrail. Somehow the guardrail ultimately went right through the car, cutting Kagle’s left leg almost completely off.
The Charlotte News noted that two of Kagle’s children, ages 5 and 4, were scooping up rocks with plastic spoons in the infield when the accident occurred and were not told about it for several hours. Kagle’s wife was also at the track and went to the hospital with her husband, whose leg couldn’t be saved and was amputated above the knee.
The race was under caution for 25 laps because of Kagle’s accident, but it continued after the guard rail was hurriedly repaired. The Charlotte News reported that NASCAR president Bill France and CMS president Curtis Turner were among those who re-dug post holes and strung steel cable across the gap during the caution laps so the race could go on.
In those days of iffy equipment and two-minute pit stops, drivers often won races by more than a lap. Pearson had a four-lap lead on Fireball Roberts with only four laps to go. Then the man eventually known as the “Silver Fox” – although his hair was all brown then – blew a tire himself.
“That was the only time I got scared,” Pearson said moments after the race. “I didn’t know how much lead I had. They never told me.”
With no time to take a pit stop, Pearson drove on the remaining three tires at about 30 mph, running on the rim on his right-rear tire and sending showers of sparks into the sky.
Roberts, meanwhile, was whizzing around the track at 130 mph, trying desperately to catch up.
Pearson had too big a lead, though. He still led Roberts by a little more than two laps when the race ended. So he took the first of his 105 career checkered flags on three tires.
The Spartanburg Herald noted on the day after the 1961 race that in the late 1950s Pearson used to go to smaller racetracks with only his car, a ham sandwich and a pair of pliers. After the win in Charlotte, Pearson’s fortunes steadily rose.
As for Kagle? The accident did not make him leave racing permanently. Driving with an artificial left leg, he won several championships at a lower-level track in Maryland.
“It could have been a lot worse, though,” Kagle told a reporter in 1973 of the accident in the 1961 Charlotte race. “I could have lost the leg I pump the gas pedal with.”
Kagle died at age 79 in 2011. The obituary noted he had 19 grandchildren.
Pearson, 80, suffered a mild stroke in December, but his family has said he is recovering. He still lives in a house he bought in 1977 in the Spartanburg area.
First-time winners in Charlotte
David Pearson won his first-ever race at NASCAR’s highest level in the Charlotte Motor Speedway's 600-mile race in 1961. Five other drivers have also earned their first Cup win at the Coca-Cola 600. The full list:
1961: David Pearson
1994: Jeff Gordon
1995: Bobby Labonte
2000: Matt Kenseth
2007: Casey Mears
2009: David Reutimann