Larry Pearson isn’t quite a bionic man, but sometimes he feels like it.
After seven surgeries and the placement of assorted pins, screws, metal supports and filters to block potentially fatal blood clots, Pearson is vertical again.
Since a March 20 Bristol Motor Speedway racing accident that almost cost him his life, Pearson has managed a remarkable recovery, one that will find his extended family of wife, children, grandchildren, brothers and one irascible father – NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee David Pearson – celebrating an unusually meaningful Christmas this year.
Pearson, twice a champion of what is now the Nationwide Series, was seriously injured in a violent crash while racing in a “legends” exhibition event at Bristol. A blown tire sent his car into the outside wall, and the impact left his brakes inoperable. His car slid down the high banking and was T-boned by the onrushing car of Charlie Glotzbach.
The impact crushed much of the left side of Pearson’s body. His left leg, left hip and left ankle were broken, as were his right knee and right hand and several ribs.
His brothers, Ricky and Eddie, were among the first to reach the battered car, and Eddie ran back on the track to inform his father, David, who was also in the race field, of the seriousness of the crash.
Pearson had the first of seven surgeries that night and would be confined to a hospital bed until the end of June.
Then began the laborious process of a 57-year-old man learning to walk again.
“Who in the heck would think you would forget how to walk, but you do,” Pearson said. “When I stood up for the first time off that bed, I stood for about three seconds, and I fell back down. You lose everything – your balance, everything.”
He advanced from wheelchair to walker to crutches and finally was able to ditch the crutches about a month ago. He returned to work in August while still on crutches. He operates Pearson Driving School, where he teaches teenagers the ins and outs of navigating the highways of America.
Pearson’s travels remain incomplete. He still has regular doctor appointments as he fights a constant battle with blood clots, which were caused by the tremendous trauma his body endured. His left leg remains swollen and continues to give him problems. “My left side was mangled all to hell,” he said.
Fortunately, he remembers little of that March day in Bristol.
“I remember Ricky yelling at me, ‘Can you hear me?’ and I remember telling him to not let them give me an IV,” he said. “I’m scared to death of needles.”
Of course, there would be many needles in his future. And a plethora of IVs. He grew to love them, for they dispensed painkillers.
“I don’t know what kind of medicine they gave me over those first few days, but it was good,” he said. “I loved it. I could push the button every seven minutes, and it was something I kept watching the clock for.”
Family and friends stepped in to make Pearson’s life easier over the toughest of the recovery period. His wife, Cathy, who brightened the Pearson family roster considerably when she married Larry, became his at-home nurse, and David stopped by their Boiling Springs, S.C. home occasionally, threatening to give his son shots.
It was a year no one should have to go through, but it was one that, Pearson says, changed him for the positive.
“I try to look at everything in a positive way now,” he said. “I try not to look at the negative parts of things. I guess I’m more grateful now. Before there were things I took for granted.
“You don’t realize how good life is until you’ve almost lost everything. You also don’t realize how many friends you have until something like that happens. It’s a shame that that has to happen for you to realize that.”
The one thing he wants for Christmas is for his left leg to continue improving “so I can play with my grandkids. Other than that, I’ve got everything. I’m as happy as I can be.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.