In more than half a century as a racing journalist, Al Pearce has spent countless hours driving, flying, riding buses and motorcycles, and taking trains to cover races — and in at least one instance, hitching a ride when a colleague left him stranded. He estimates he’s spent at least a year’s worth of hours catching a few winks in his car in getting from Point A to Point B.
Now 76, the Vietnam veteran and former teacher has curtailed his pace in recent years, spending more time at home in Newport News, Va., than ever. His 35 years of coverage of sports for his hometown Times Herald and Daily Press was rewarded with his 2012 election to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. He has written for AutoWeek magazine for 46 years and has covered the Daytona 500 50 times.
Though he’s cut back on his travels, his passion for all facets of racing has barely waned.
Earlier this year, he wrapped up the latest in a series of charitable quests. Available for sale now are four helmets, each one signed by the NHRA champions in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle. Each class has its own helmet, and 100 percent of the proceeds — just as was the case with the previous helmets — goes directly to charities.
Bruce Larson (Funny Car) and Joe Amato (Top Fuel) were the first to sign back in late July 2016. He closed out the assignment in January with a trip to Henderson, Texas, to get 2018 Top Fuel titlist Steve Torrence’s signature. Ten days later, he completed the task in Mooresville, N.C., by harvesting the autograph of last year’s Pro Stock champ, Tanner Gray.
His quandary now is how to get the helmets sold to benefit four charities: Shirley’s Kids, Infinite Hero Foundation, Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, and Kyle Petty’s Victory Junction Gang Camp.
“I’ve got these four drag racing helmets boxed up right here in my office and have no idea how to move them,” Pearce said.
“Basically,” he said, “all someone would need to do to purchase any or all of them is to “make a serious offer. Whatever the person pays will be a tax-deductible charity donation. I won’t take a dime of the money.”
His pursuit of racing’s champions began about 15 years ago when he got the “19 or 20” living Daytona 500 winners at that time to sign a helmet. It sold for $7,500 to a man in Texas, whom Pearce said has gone to races at Texas Motor Speedway to update the helmet with the signatures of the drivers that have since won NASCAR’s premier event.
“I think he’s up to 25 or 26 by now,” Pearce said.
The next helmet was a hardshell canvas for the signatures of all of the living NASCAR Cup Series champions. Then came one for the winners of the Indianapolis 500, NASCAR Cup championship team owners, Cup Chase (playoff) qualifiers, followed by the Formula One world champions.
And then …
“Just when I thought I’d run out of people, Randy Hallman (longtime journalist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch) said to me, ‘Alright, smartass, get the F1 guys.’ “
He did — all 23 of them who were living at the time.
Once engaged in the process of procuring the signatures, Pearce refused to be deterred by logistics or by doubters. by anyone, deterred by doubters.
To track down all of the F1 champs required some serious globetrotting and expense. Pearce made multiple trips to England, France, Austria, Brazil and Canada in order to secure 22 of those 23 autographs.
“I got Emerson Fittipaldi and Jacques Villenueve the same weekend in Miami and Homestead,” Pearce said, noting that he caught Fittipaldi during a layover between flights at Miami International Airport.
For another set of interviews, he flew to Paris, then boarded a train to Monaco and the scene of an F1 race. He got the signatures, then sprinted back to Paris before a strike shut down rail traffic.
The only F1 champion whose autograph he didn’t personally see signed was Australia’s Jack Brabham. He arranged to get that autograph through Brabham’s son, Geoff, an IMSA racer at the time.
The F1 helmet was auctioned in Monaco by Sotheby’s and commanded $15,000 — a figure that disappointed Pearce because the signees included giants such as Michael Schumacher, Nikki Lauda, Lewis Hamilton, and Jackie Stewart. He directed the funds to be paid to Petty’s camp and the foundations run by NASCAR champions Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.
“I never see the check,” Pearce said, “I just see a letter saying, ‘Thank you for contributing to our project.’ “
Getting the Indy 500 winners’ signatures required a dash of strategy and the desire to prove the eventual buyer of the helmet wrong.
Pearce had been told by numerous people connected to Indy-type racing that A.J. Foyt would never sign anything that already had Mario Andretti’s autograph. Pearce made sure to get Foyt’s signature first, then prayed that Andretti wouldn’t spot Foyt’s when the helmet was presented to him.
“So many people had signed it by that point, he never even saw A.J.’s name. He literally signed it on the other side — and until he did, I was sweating bullets,” Pearce said.
That helmet was sold for $10,000 to Tony Stewart, who had chided Pearce that he’d never pull off the feat. A year later, Pearce proved him wrong.
“He told me, ‘You’ll never do it, Pearce. If you do it, I’ll give you 10 grand — but you won’t do it, so I don’t have to worry about it,’ “ Pearce said. “So when I got the last name … I took it to Daytona the next February, walked into the drivers’ meeting, walked up to Tony and said, ‘Give me my money.’ He looked at me and grinned. He took that thing and looked it over like a jeweler looking at the Hope Diamond — looked on the back, the front … he could not believe it. He told (then business manager) Eddie Jarvis, ‘Send this guy a check when we get home’ — and he did, made out to Kyle’s camp.”
At that point, Pearce thought his autograph-chasing days were over.
Then another media colleague, Stan Creekmore, said, “Why don’t you do drag racers?”
“I said, ‘I don’t know. Do you think there’s any market for that?’ “ Pearce said. “He said, ‘You mean, Big Daddy, Shirley, Prudhomme? Listen, it’d be easy. A lot of them are still alive, they all live in the United States, and most of them are in the East or Midwest, which was true. And almost all of them go to Indy or other races. You could probably get all of them in a year.’ “
As it turned out, it would take three years to round up all the champions’ autographs. The quest would involve trips to 10 states: Pennsylvania, California, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Indiana, Washington, Georgia, and North Carolina.
“I told Creekmore, ‘I can’t drag four helmets around all over the country.’ He said, ‘Sure you can. Just go to Charlotte for either of their two weekends and you’ll get half of them right there. Go to Indy for the U.S. Nationals and you’ll get a bunch more’ — which is exactly what happened,” Pearce said.
With the aid of industry insiders such as Steve Earwood, Dave Densmore, Terry Blount and others, Pearce was able to touch base by phone with many of the drivers and set up a schedule of when and where to meet them. He was surprised by how easy it was to get their cooperation.
“I told them who I was and what I was doing and said, ‘The money raised from this project will all go to NHRA-related charities except for one (the Petty Camp),’ “ Pearce said. “Everybody said, ‘Yeah, if you come to me, I’ll do it. So I basically started going to NHRA races and got them all like that.”
He collected 14 signatures during the 2016 U.S. Nationals, and 13 at the 2017 Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway near Charlotte.
Matt Smith, the 2013 and ‘18 champion in Pro Stock Motorcycle, recalls that Pearce “just walked up at Charlotte,” explained the project and asked for his signature.
“That’s the kind of dedication it takes to get the right stuff for charity,” Smith said. “I was glad to do it. I’ll do anything I can for any kind of charity group that people are trying to help.”
The Top Fuel helmet includes the autograph of 1993 champion Eddie Hill, and that of his wife, Ercie, who’s the only non-driver/rider on any of the four helmets. “She was as big a part of his team as anybody,” Pearce said.
Anyone interested in purchasing any of the helmets for a donation to one of the four charities should contact Al Pearce with an offer at [email protected]
TRACKING DOWN THE CHAMPS
The dates on which Al Pearce obtained the autographs of the NHRA champions:
July 28, 2016 — Bruce Larson (FC), Joe Amato (TF)
Aug. 24, 2016 — Frank Hawley (FC)
Aug. 31, 2016 — Del Worsham (TF, FC), Tony Schumacher (TF), John Force (FC), Robert Hight (FC),
Sept. 1, 2016 — Tony Pedregon (FC), Cruz Pedregon (FC)
Sept. 2, 2016 — Mark Oswald (FC), Antron Brown (TF), Jack Beckman (FC), Matt Hagan (FC), Shawn Langdon (TF), Larry Dixon (TF)
Sept. 3, 2016 — Don Garlits (TF), Shirley Muldowney (TF)
Oct. 27, 2016 — Dick LaHaie (TF)
Nov. 6, 2016 — Richard Tharp (TF), Eddie Hill (TF)
Nov. 11, 2016 — Gary Scelzi (TF, FC), Gary Beck (TF)
Nov. 12, 2016 — Kenny Bernstein (TF, FC), Don Prudhomme (FC), Ron Capps (FC)
Jan. 12, 2017 — Rob Bruins (TF)
Feb. 13, 2017 — Jeb Allen (TF)
Feb. 28, 2017 — Kelly Brown (TF)
April 28, 2017 — Andrew Hines (PSM), Eddie Krawiec (PSM), Matt Hines (PSM), Hector Arana (PSM), Jim Yates (PS), Matt Smith (PSM), Jeg Coughlin (PS), Erica Stevens (PS), Greg Anderson (PS), Jason Line (PS), Jerry Savoie (PSM), LE Tonglet (PSM), Angelle Sampey (PSM)
April 30, 2017 — Allen Johnson (PS)
May 3, 2017 — Warren Johnson (PS)
June 8, 2017 — Larry Lombardo (PS)
June 9, 2017 — “Pizza” John Mafaro (PSM)
July 6, 2017 — Darrell Alderman (PS)
July 7, 2017 — Bob Glidden (PS)
July 28, 2017 — Geno Scali (PSM)
Dec. 7, 2017 — Bo Butner (PS)
Dec. 8, 2017 — Brittany Force (TF)
Jan. 7, 2018 — Mike Edwards (PS)
Dec. 6, 2018 — JR Todd (FC)
Jan. 12, 2019 — Steve Torrence (TF)
Jan. 22, 2019 — Tanner Gray (PS)
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) January 4, 2019