Al Pearce (right) and Skip Clayton, with WBCB radio (left), who also covered the first event at Dover on July 6, 1969 were recognized by the track and President and CEO of Dover Motorsports, Inc. Denis McGlynn (center) Sunday morning.
The first time it happened, Woodstock was still in the planning stages, the phrase, “That’s one small step for man…,” hadn’t been uttered yet, Mario Andretti had won the Indianapolis 500 a few months before, and the Beatles were still together.
The date was July 6, 1969 and it marked the first time Al Pearce sat in the media center at Dover International Speedway. It just so happened to be the first time the track held a NASCAR race. It’s also the same place Al is at this weekend as the track marks its 50th year and it’s 100th race.
That first NASCAR race at the 1-mile oval just so happened to be the first NASCAR race the storied motorsports journalist had ever covered.
“Other than being in the Daytona infield as a fan in ’66, it was the biggest track I’d ever seen,” Al said. “Certainly, hugely bigger than the local short tracks in Virginia where I’d been covering for a couple of weeks as a cub reporter just out of the Army. Dover looks tiny now compared to Daytona and Talladega and Indy, but it seemed gigantic at the time. That was the first sign of my motorsports inexperience. I was basically awed by everything, even the little press box overlooking what is now the backstretch.”
It’s hard to imagine Al Pearce not having experience in NASCAR. He covered NASCAR for the Newport News Times-Herald/Daily Press for 35 good years (1969-2004) and has written for Auto Week since 1973. But that first race at Dover in 1969 was his introduction into the world of NASCAR.
“I remember being stunned by the first few laps, the noise and the spectacle of cars running that fast so close together,” he said. “Eventually, Petty and Pearson and Yarbrough got away from everyone else, and it became a three-car deal. Once Pearson and Yarbrough blew tires and wrecked out, I remember people in the press box (all of whom knew WAAAY more about racing than I did) wondering whether there was anyone left who could challenge Petty. Of course, there wasn’t. He simply rode around without having to worry too much, eventually beating short-track star Sonny Hutchens by six laps, one of the largest MOV’s (margins of victory) in Cup Series history.”
Al’s motorsports inexperience was on full display shortly after the race ended and he asked his first question.
Al Pearce and his father in 1967 shortly before Al went to Vietnam.
“I knew virtually NOTHING about NASCAR at the time,” he said. “I’d just finished a three-year Army tour and had been in Vietnam for 13 months. I was hired by a little paper in Newport News only because a friend vouched for me and because the paper’s “veteran” racing writer had just gone somewhere else. I’d covered maybe three short-track races before talking my boss into sending me to Dover to see the big stuff for the first time.”
“My first question – asked very hesitantly – to a big-time star was: ‘Mr. Petty (my second sign of ignorance), why did you climb out the window (in victory lane) instead of just opening the door?’ (my third sign).
“Richard looked at me and said, not at all unkindly, ‘Boy, you don’t know much, do you?’ And I answer famously, ‘No, sir, but I expect to learn.’
Learn he did. Pearce would go on to cover races all around the NASCAR schedule, including twice a season in Dover; races that left him with many memories through the years.
“There are too many in both categories to remember,” Al said. “But I was happy that Junie Donlavey got a win with Jody Ridley (spring of 1981) and I was glad Ricky Rudd won in the fall of ’87, the Sunday after I was married up in New Jersey.”
“Ricky didn’t know it at the time, but he played a big part in my meeting my future wife, so he was always special to us. For him to win “for us” while the track hosted us in the VIP Suite was pretty cool. (We went to Paris a month later for a real honeymoon). But there have been some absolute snoozers, days when someone hit everything just right and simply walked away with it. More in the earlier days than now, but occasionally you’ll see a runaway these days.”
After that first race in ’69, Pearce actually wondered if he’d be back.
Richard Petty won the first race at Dover.
“Hell, after the Petty question I didn’t know if I’d be back for a second race,” Al said. “I was so new to the newspaper business that I didn’t know if they’d keep me or run me off after a few weeks. But I stayed, so I must have learned something (about) this stuff.”
So what keeps Al coming back?
“It’s on the schedule, so I’m here,” he said. “The first two races in ’69 and ’70 were 300-milers, then the track got two 500-milers a year for a long time, then mercifully dropped back to two 400s. It’s close enough to home (260 miles) that the travel isn’t too bad. Great facility (now) and good racing and extraordinary seafood at Sambo’s.”
As the track gets ready to hold its 100th NASCAR Cup race, Al says that changes from that first one in 1969 are many.
“Everything,” he said. “More fans (although it’s dropped off considerably in recent years), better media facilities, much, much better competition, better media access to what we need, a far more professional atmosphere than in ’69. Dover was one of 50-some races in ’69 and I don’t recall that anyone expect the competitors took it very seriously. Today, with the Playoff aspect and the money involved, it’s a big deal.”
And how long can we expect to see Al Pearce come to Dover?
“As long as they run, I guess,” he said. “Of its 100 races, I think I’ve missed two, maybe three. Kyle Petty’s annual Charity Motorcycle Ride has started on the spring Dover weekend the past two years, and I’m always going to do that ride over almost anything else. And there may have been another newspaper-related obligation (the Redskins? NHRA in Richmond? A late-ending Saturday night college football game a long way from the East Coast?) that’s kept me away. “
Al and wife Francie headed right to Dover in the fall of 1987 right after they were married.
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