NASCAR's Perfect Storm: Three Decades Later
CBS footage from the last lap of the 1979 Daytona 500
As sports fans, I am sure each of us has a short list of famous (or infamous) moments that we wish we were either a) alive to see; b) old enough to remember; or c) able to be there in person.
I know the top of my list includes the 1982 Stanford-Cal game, 1991 World Series, Super Bowl III, and the 1979 Daytona 500. The 21st annual Great American Race, held on Feb. 18, 30 years ago, is still talked about to this day. How can you not talk about a race that may be the most defining of NASCAR's immense growth since the early 1980s?
As of Feb. 18, 1979, no 500-mile auto race had been televised flag-to-flag. Not even the more prestigious Indianapolis 500. And now a bunch of southern rednecks were going to do battle in their taxicabs for 500 miles at Daytona International Speedway.
The race had plenty of interesting story lines.
Cale Yarborough was going for his fourth consecutive Winston Cup championship in 1979, like Jimmie Johnson is in 2009 (note that in the late '70s, Riverside was still the first race of the season, so any preseason talk of Yarborough repeating his crown may have already subsided). Of course, you had the stars of the '60s and '70s, such as Petty, Yarborough, Pearson, Baker, Parsons, and the Allison brothers, going up against the drivers who would eventually dominate the sport in the '80s and early '90s.
Including some guy named Earnhardt making his first 500 start. Ironically, Earnhardt would lose his life 22 years later on the exact day, making it another Daytona 500 that has come to define NASCAR. There were also Labonte, Rudd, Bodine, and Gant. This race would also mark the first use of an in-car camera, a technology we all have come to know and love.
NASCAR and CBS would be helped by Mother Nature on this late-winter Sunday, when a snowstorm blanketed much of the eastern third of the country. In the dawning years of cable and 15 years before the Internet became wide-stream, that left snowed-in residents very few entertainment options. Many, I'm sure, turned on the Daytona 500 out of curiosity, became too interested to turn off the television, and were hooked for life after the post-race fireworks.
Buddy Baker started on the pole in Harry Ranier's Oldsmobile, but suffered an early engine failure. Donnie Allison took control of the race from there, even after losing control of his car early, which forced Yarborough into a spin. Yarborough, driving his famed No. 11 for Junior Johnson, lost two laps making repairs.
No Lucky Dog in these days, folks, but Yarborough still made up both laps and was in contention for the win going into the last lap. Yarborough tried to pass Allison, but was blocked. The two cars made contact going into turn three, and, as they say, the rest is history.
Yarborough and Allison quickly emerged from their wrecked cars and engaged in words and fisticuffs, before being joined by Allison's older brother Bobby. Ken Squier's call of the melee lives on in the memory of many to this day. What often gets lost in the shuffle, however, is that Richard Petty, over a half lap behind at the time, benefited from the leaders crashing to pick up his sixth Great American Race victory, with Jaws Waltrip right on his tail.
Another legend, A.J. Foyt, was third, the last car on the lead lap. Dale Earnhardt was eighth, a lap down.
In front of a national audience for the first time, NASCAR had arrived. People were hooked to this sport where southern men who talked and looked funny decided to duke it out in the infield after the race. Blue-collar excitement for a blue-collar nation. TV deals with fledgling cable channels TNN and ESPN soon followed. Big name sponsors and droves of fans were not far behind.
Throughout the '80s, the sport grew. It grew even more in the '90s and early 2000s. Even the current plateauing of the sport's popularity does not make much of a dent in the expansion witnessed since this race.
Unfortunately, with that immense growth, NASCAR has seemed to lose its identity as a good ol' boy sport in recent years.
Sponsors want groomed, intelligent, well-spoken individuals representing their company. And there is nothing wrong with that. But under Brian France and this era of sponsorship domination, political correctness has become the name of the game. We essentially have 43 corporate suits, with a few exceptions. And that very well could be driving some fans away.
While the sport now has fans of all nationalities, races, economic classes, and education, it remains a largely blue-collar sport. Any way you look at it, the fans want to be entertained, and while there is plenty of entertainment from the racing, they still want to enjoy colorful personalities. There's something about other people's dirty laundry that is always intriguing to the general public.
What is so wrong with that?
I'd rather have a couple NASCAR drivers engage in a shoving match in the garage area than driving 90 MPH in a 35 MPH zone with my unrestrained kid (Jason Richardson, NBA), murdering people (Rae Carruth, NFL), or taking performance-enhancing drugs (too many to mention, MLB).
So, a note to the sanctioning body and sponsors: Let the drivers be themselves.
Drivers: Be yourself. The fans will thank you for it, and who knows, another Allison/Yarborough-like incident could provide another boom in popularity.
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