• 1979 Daytona 500 - The Race That Made Nascar

    Its hard to imagine it now, being the multi-billion dollar super power it is, but back in 1979, the Nascar Winston Cup (now the Sprint Cup) was just another American sport, struggling to gain national recognition. Motor racing in general was a sport that didn’t garner a lot of media attention, compared to the high ranking ball sports it struggled to compete against. Even the Indy 500 was still aired as edited highlights, later on the same day the race was held.

    Selected Nascar Grand National/Winston Cup races made television listings dating right back to the 1950s, but those that were aired were strictly limited to heavily edited highlights, and mostly televised at the most unsociable of time slots. Motor racing being given full live coverage was completely unheard of.

    However, as the 1970s rolled on, and Nascar continued to grow, so efforts were made to increase and improve television coverage, and finally, in 1979, the 21st running of the Daytona 500, the biggest prize in stock car racing, was to be broadcast live on national television, in its entirety. This was monumental, as up to this point, Nascar had been a sport largely ignored outside its Southeastern roots.

    However, live television coverage alone was not enough to thrust Nascar to national recognition. A slick broadcasting package, new initiatives for improved television viewing, and a few strokes of luck all played their roles on this day, in what many consider to be the most important day in Nascar racing history.

    The 1979 Daytona 500 was held on February 18, 1979, and was the second round in that seasons Nascar Winston Cup. CBS would air the race, while the television commentary team comprised the familiar voice of Ken Squier, along with David Hobbs in the announcement booth, while former Nascar driver Ned Jarrett, along with motoring journalist Brock Yates were positioned in the pits. Television viewers were also wowed for the first time with an in-car camera mounted inside Benny Parsons car, taking viewers along for the ride, plus trackside low-mounted cameras, to further dramatize the speeds. Finally, as luck would have it, a massive snowstorm struck large Northern and Midwestern areas, confining people to their houses, with only their television sets to keep them linked to the outside world. Nascar potentially had a captive audience.

    But for all this, the 1979 Daytona 500 was just a damned good race, with a dramatic finish, and one that thrust stock car racing onto the national stage.

    41 drivers qualified for the race. Among them were Richard Petty, gunning for his sixth Daytona 500 race win, despite being on a 45 race losing streak that began back in 1977. Cale Yarborough was going for his third win. David Pearson, ‘the Silver Fox’ was going for his second win, as were A.J Foyt, Bobby Allison and Benny Parsons. In fact, with the exception of former Petty Enterprises driver Pete Hamilton, who’d retired several years earlier, the above drivers accounted for every Daytona 500 win during the 1970s. Also hot contenders were Bobby Allison’s brother Donnie, along with Buddy Baker, Neil Bonnett, and the next wave of young hard chargers, headed by Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte, Geoff Bodine, Ricky Rudd, and a relative unknown, having his first full season in the big game, Dale Earnhardt. Current team owner Richard Childress was also in the line-up.

    The field comprised 21 Oldsmobile’s, 7 Chevrolet’s, 6 Buick’s, 3 Mercury’s, 2 Ford’s, and 2 Dodge’s. The Oldsmobile Cutlass’ had strength in numbers, but were also the fastest cars in 1979, with their slipper body shape. Buddy Baker took his Cutlass to pole position, breaking the track record in the process, ahead of the similar cars of Donnie Allison, Yarborough, Waltrip, Parsons, and Foyt, while Bobby Allison, in the #15 Bud Moore Thunderbird was the first non-Olds on the starting grid. Dick Brooks (Cutlass) was next, while David Pearson in the famous #21 Wood Brothers Mercury, and the young Earnhardt (Buick) rounded out the top ten. Petty qualified back in 13th, in the #43 STP Oldsmobile. Baker had also won the 125 mile Daytona race leading up to the big 500 miler, and went in as hot favourite.

    The storms that affected large chunks of the country also affected the early part of the Daytona 500, and the first 15 laps (of 200) were run behind the pace-car, as overnight rain had made the track too wet to race on. Waltrip was sent out on his own to run some hot laps to test the condition of the track at speed, while everyone else trundled along behind the pace-car. Finally, despite the inside apron and pit lane still being quite damp, and several drivers complaining that Turn 2 was still too wet, most notably pole-man Baker, perhaps due to the pressure to get the race started given the live television audience, the Pontiac Trans-Am pace-car finally pulled off, and the race was flagged away, and Donnie Allison immediately jumped ahead of a tentative Baker. Completing the first lap at racing speeds, and in these pre-restrictor plate times, Allison opened a small gap to lead the field across the strip for the first time.

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