The Brawl That Put NASCAR On The Map

Flying fists and hot tempers garner a new TV audience


Even the New York Times couldn’t resist giving it a screaming headline on their ‘SportsMonday’ front-page: ‘Petty Wins Daytona After Leaders Crash on Last Lap’.

Forty-four years ago, on February 18, 1979, tires were screeching, fists were flying, and millions of Americans in the Northeast and Midwest were buried deep in snow. Against all expectations, it was the perfect confluence of events for the Daytona 500.

The drama that unfolded on the speedway that day catapulted NASCAR from a southeast regional motorsport to a national juggernaut.

It was the country’s first car race that was televised live from start to finish and viewers loved what they saw- drama at the finish line and a fistfight in the final stretch.

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Car chases in pre-cable America were broadcast in sanitized highlights and typically just in the final quarter of a race. Even the Indianapolis 500 was edited and tape delayed.

With a nail-biting finish to an overall thrilling afternoon, fan favorite Rich Petty took the checkered flag after Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough dropped out of first place contention.

The day began with a morning downpour at the Daytona International Speedway. Miserable weather conditions cast doubt on whether the 21st annual Daytona 500, the second and most important race of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, would even take place.

But the sky cleared and drivers moved to fire their engines. Some complained that track conditions were still wet, but Bill France, Sr., NASCAR’s founder and owner, insisted on a timely start.

A lot was riding on this year’s competition. Months earlier, he inked a deal with CBS to broadcast the entire event from flag to flag, but the purse wasn’t going to be paid unless it ran on schedule.

Founded in 1948, NASCAR grew out of the moonshine-running backwaters of the southeast. The heroes were local characters and personalities who made their reputations on dirt tracks before joining the circuit.

By the late 1970s, the family-owned brand was poised for national growth but it needed a catalyst. CBS was willing to take that chance.

Commentator Ken Squier and his CBS colleague, former British racer David Hobbs, were long-time advocates of taking the sport beyond its air-time snippets.

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The network sent their football coverage crew to wire the speedway for the best TV viewing spots. Not only would the entire 200-lap competition be aired live, but it would also include for the first time in-car mounted cameras and low angle pavement shots, all standard features today.

The 41-vehicle field included legendary drivers Buddy Baker, Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, A.J. Foyt, brothers Donny and Bobby Allison, and Cale Yarborough. At pole position, Baker was the odds favorite.

Still recovering from an ulcer operation that took out half his stomach, Petty was gunning for his 6th Daytona 500 victory against the advice of his doctors to quit racing. He started at grid position 13, piloting a #43 Oldsmobile.

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Behind the wheel of a #2 Buick was Dale Earnhardt, one of seven rookies chasing a dream on that day. Twenty-two years later, the same track would claim his life in a crash on the final lap.

Track veterans Donnie Allison and Yarborough started at positions 2 and 3, respectively, both driving an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. Allison was the 1970 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year and a 10-time NASCAR series winner, but never at Daytona.

Yarborough came in as the NASCAR Grand National Winston Cup series champion for the 3 prior years- 1976, 77, 78. To date, he remains one of only 2 drivers in NASCAR history to raise the championship trophy for 3 consecutive seasons.

The first 15 laps at the automotive fury were run under yellow flag conditions as precaution against the wet surface. But the roaring pursuit would soon average 144 mph and see 36 lead changes.

Tensions rose as a series of spins, collisions, and engine failures sent cars against the outer barriers, or into the slippery infield.

By the 180th lap, it was Donnie Allison in car #1 and Cale Yarborough in #11, inches apart and dueling for the lead. The remaining pack was 17 seconds behind.

Coming into the final lap, Allison was at the front and Yarborough on his tail drafting. At the 2nd turn, Yarborough attempted a slingshot pass from the inside, but Allison blocked.

Refusing to yield, Yarborough’s left tires rolled over the grass, forcing the two 3,700 lb. machines to bang against each other several times and careen up the embankment against the wall before spinning back into the muddy field.

After 199 laps and nearly 3½ grueling hours behind the wheel, first and second place pilots were now out of contention. They were only 1 turn away from the finish line.

Trailing half a lap in third place was Rich Petty on his way to clinching the title and breaking a 45-race drought.

Taking advantage of the unforeseen fiasco, Petty fought to hold off his pursuers, Darrell Waltrip and A.J. Foyt, to land the fortuitous victory.

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While the Petty camp was celebrating their landmark moment, tempers boiled over at the site of the wreck. Yarborough was tangled in a one-on-two brawl with brothers Donnie and Bobbie Allison.

Fists flying, helmets swinging, and legs kicking- it wasn’t what NASCAR officials planned to showcase on that day.

Ken Squier’s live commentary described the simultaneous scenes of Petty’s triumph and the fight between Yarborough and the Allison brothers:

And here comes a $60,000 car becoming a 22-passenger school bus to bring his crew to victory lane. Richard Petty, the great master, has just recorded his 186th career…and there’s a fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison!! The tempers overflowing! They’re angry! They know they have lost! And what a bitter defeat!

Those seconds turned out to be not just memorable entertainment for the 120,000 fans in attendance, but for the millions of people watching at home during a snow blizzard that shut down the eastern U.S. from Georgia to Maine.

Leading up to the weekend, CBS executives had expected a rating of 2-3 million, but they ended up with 6 million viewers.

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Overnight, Bill France won a following outside stock car racing’s southern roots. No longer just the talk of the town, NASCAR became the country's first Monday morning ‘water cooler’ race gab.

CBS kept telecasting the Daytona 500 until the end of the 1990s, after which NASCAR went from the ‘backwoods to the boardroom’, packaging its live calendar into a $2.4 billion contract among various networks.



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