Wednesday, February 12, 2003
Welcome, America, to the world of racin´
By GODWIN KELLY
DAYTONA BEACH — Every so often, historians identify a Winston Cup race as having produced a lasting impact on big-league stock-car racing.
Thanks to some nationally televised fisticuffs between three of NASCAR´s better-known competitors, the 1979 Daytona 500 has been tagged as one of those significant races that helped define and foster the sport.
“It wasn´t a fistfight,” one of the post-race combatants, Cale Yarborough, said years later. “It was a little shoving match. But it should have been a fistfight.”
In the late 1970s, Winston Cup was a regional sport eager to bust out of its pot and into America´s mainstream.
It was hard to get anyone´s attention outside the South since NASCAR didn´t get much television exposure. The Pepsi 400, for instance, was filmed and chopped up into segments for ABC´s Wide World of Sports.
Daytona International Speedway had some success broadcasting the Daytona 500 on a closed-circuit network.
After years of courting network television, CBS Sports finally took a chance and signed a contract to offer a live, start-to-finish broadcast of the 500.
NASCAR had developed an intriguing cast of driving stars, such as Richard Petty, David Pearson, Benny Parsons, Darrell Waltrip, Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison and Yarborough.
And there was that rookie class of ´79. The preseason favorite to win the rookie title was Joe Millikan, who grew up in the Petty Enterprises camp and had the wheel of the L.G. DeWitt Chevrolet.
The other rookie contenders were Harry Gant, Terry Labonte and Dale Earnhardt, who was making his first Daytona 500 start.
The morning of the race was plagued by dark clouds and periods of rain. It was not the kind of day that made people want to go to a sporting event.
Rain or no rain, they came to the track, mobbing the Speedway to watch The Great American Race just as they had been doing for 20 years.
While locals were dodging showers, much of the country was under a thick blanket of snow. Cold weather and snow usually boost TV numbers, so people who might not have watched the 500 were shut in and tuning in.
They got a dandy race that came down to a last-lap shootout between Donnie Allison, who was leading at the white flag, and Yarborough, who was plotting to pass for the lead on the back straightaway.
In the book “Daytona 500,” author Bob Zeller turns to CBS announcer Ken Squier´s blow-by-blow description to explain the dramatic turn of events:
“Is´s all come down to this! Out of Turn 2, Donnie Allison in first. Where will Cale make his move?
He comes to the inside. Donnie Allison throws the block! Cale hits him! He slides! Donnie Allison slides! They hit again! They drive into the turn! They´re hitting the wall! They slide down to the inside! They are out of it!”
Yarborough was famous for his slingshot passing technique and tried to go inside of Allison´s Oldsmobile on the last lap.
“I made up my mind that he would have to pass me up high,” Donnie Allison said. “When he tried to pass me low, he went off the track. He spun and hit me.”
Allison pinched Yarborough´s Olds down to the apron, and Yarborough would not back off. The cars touched. Actually, it was more like a quick clank of sheet metal.
In the blink of an eye they made contact again, sending both cars heading up the banking into the outside wall in Turn 3. The cars took a glancing blow off the concrete before coming to rest in the infield.
While all this was going on, Petty and Waltrip were more than half-lap behind in third and fourth. Both were down on power after each lost a cylinder in their engines.
When the yellow light came on to signify trouble on the track, Petty and Waltrip continued their charge, and both soon realized the Daytona 500 battle had leapfrogged from Allison-Yarborough to their two-man duel.
“Richard was jumping up and down in his seat,” Waltrip said, explaining Petty´s reaction when they zoomed past the accident site.
CBS followed the race to the finish -- Petty won with Waltrip on his rear bumper -- then the cameras went back to the real action, at the accident scene where there was big trouble brewing.
Neither Allison nor Yarborough was injured in the accident. Both emerged from their battered racing machines dazed and dirty.
Yarborough was mad, upset and frustrated for a variety of reasons. He thought Bobby Allison tried to block him as he set out to pass younger brother Donnie; he thought Donnie should have given him room to make the pass; and of course, he had just lost the Daytona 500.
But Bobby Allison didn´t play a factor in the last-lap scenario. Donnie Allison and Yarborough had come up on the lapped Ford of Ralph Jones, who was just trying to get out of their way by staying on the inside lane. Jones and Allison were both running white paint schemes that day.
Immediately after the race, Bobby rode back around to check on his brother. Yarborough and Bobby yelled at each other. Yarborough took a swing, helmet in hand, at Bobby through the race car window.
Donnie tried to restrain Yarborough as Bobby emerged from his car. The three men started throwing punches and kick. Bobby dove for Yarborough´s legs, and at another point in the confrontation Bobby had Yarborough by the throat with his left hand.
This all played to NASCAR´s favor, as a national audience watched the post-race drama unfold on their television sets.
The numbers for the telecast were so good, it was a major shock to CBS execs. The Daytona 500 had earned a 10.4 rating, a race record that stood until 2002 (10.9).
Those points are precious. Each rating point represents about 1.05 million households.
During the next several years after the “kick in the grass,” more and more Winston Cup races were shown live on television, with ESPN leading the charge for broadcast rights.
NASCAR took control of TV rights in 1999 and offered it as a package to networks. The end result was a $2.4 billion, eight-year deal with Fox and NBC and their cable network partners.
Historians tell us that NASCAR´s TV success can be traced back to a little scuffle among three fierce opponents in a muddy area at Daytona more than 20 years ago.