Forty years after the checkered flag waved over a surprise winner in the 1979 Daytona 500, the race is still considered one of the most important milestones in NASCAR’s 71-year history.
A variety of storylines leading up to the Feb. 19, 1979 NASCAR Cup Series event had writers scrambling to keep up during Speedweeks at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
The decision by CBS Sports executives to broadcast the race live was tremendous news, as NASCAR racing would be displayed on its biggest stage to date.
In previous years, national television networks showed mediocre interest in NASCAR, recording portions of major events for later broadcast. In April 1971, ABC Sports broadcast a live Cup Series event from South Carolina’s Greenville-Pickens Speedway that was won by driver Bobby Isaac. The caution-free race was met with less than favorable reviews.
NASCAR founder Bill France continued floating the idea of live television coverage with few takers. Televising a 500-mile stock car race presented unique challenges, such as the lengthy race distance that could span several hours, untested camera angles on a superspeedway and most importantly, would a nation largely unfamiliar with NASCAR’s southern regional roots care enough to watch?
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After many conversations, a meeting was held among broadcaster Ken Squier, driver Darrell Waltrip and CBS officials. It opened the door for France to hammer out a five-year deal to broadcast the Daytona 500 live through February 1983.
Weeks before the race, spools of cable were stretched and connected to a makeshift broadcast complex just outside the grandstands. Numerous cameras were put in place around the track’s best vantage points, including one low to the ground outside the fourth turn operated by a helmeted camera operator.
There was also a camera place inside the M.C. Anderson-owned Oldsmobile driven by Benny Parsons that provided breathtaking shots of the on-track action.
Some 72 hours before race time, national weather forecasts called for a massive snowstorm to hit the Eastern Seaboard. Snow totals of four feet in places would bring normal life to a standstill.
Heavy rain blanketed much of Florida on Saturday and continued throughout the night. Miraculously, the rain stopped at 11 a.m., giving hope this one incredibly important day of racing hadn’t been lost. Forty-one drivers fired their engines at exactly 1 p.m. and circled the track under caution for 15 laps to complete the 2.5-mile track’s drying process.
Race favorites Buddy Baker and Waltrip won the two 125-mile qualifying races with the rain-shortened Sportsman 300 going to Waltrip. Baker won the pole at over 196 mph with Donnie Allison alongside.
Other favorites were Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Parsons, Bobby Allison, Indy car icon A.J. Foyt and rookie standout Dale Earnhardt. There was also Richard Petty, a five-time winner of the 500 who was racing after major stomach surgery weeks earlier.
Seven caution periods slowed the race for 57 laps, including one on lap 32 that involved Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison and Yarborough. All three recovered to be key players at the finish.
Donnie Allison led 93 of 200 laps, including 21 of the final 22 laps and was set to finally win the 500 after coming close twice before.
Yarborough was on Allison’s bumper as they drove under the white flag to start the final lap. Yarborough dropped to the inside in search of the lead off the second turn. Suddenly, the pair made side-to-side contact three times before crashing into the turn-three wall.
Four decades later, both drivers are still being asked about that fateful day at Daytona.