The 1979 Season
"Trouble in Turn 3!"
By Greg Fielden
In the formative years at the Daytona International Speedway a variety of short races were staged. Among them were a pair of 10-lap pole position races that were presented two weeks before the Daytona 500. The winners of the two 25-mile sprints earned the front row for the 500. In 1960 Detroit began the mass production of "compact cars" (Ford Falcons, Chevrolet Corvairs, Plymouth Valiants, Pontiac Tempests, Mercury Comets, etc). Big Bill France, never one to miss an opportunity, quickly slipped into the Speedweeks program two races for these new type of cars as well as the two qualifying events. Then he went looking for a network to televise the four short races.
CBS Sports responded and in January of 1960 sent a technical crew to the 2.5-mile speedway to get set up to televise the series of four short races on January 31. This was the first live network television coverage in Stock car racing. CBS was venturing into uncharted waters. The four events, which were run at Daytona on January 31, 1960, seemed to be an ideal set-up. The races were short -- the pole position races were both less than 10 minutes in length -- and network executives could conveniently slip commercials into the programming without cutting much, if any, of the racing action.
The experiment was termed a success. CBS packed up its gear and headed back to New York -- 14 days before the running of the second annual Daytona 500. They didn't dare attempt a telecast of a four-hour marathon. CBS dabbled in the sport for four more years -- usually airing edited versions of Grand National races in the CBS Sports Spectacular show.
ABC Sports' first telecast was the 1961 Firecracker 250 at Daytona. Highlights were shown on the ABC Wide World of Sports program. The Sports Spectacular and Wide World of Sports shows were suited to auto racing. The network producers could edit portions of the race which were unexciting -- and they could package a race into a half hour or 45 minutes of actual footage. Most races were televised a few weeks later.
By the mid-70s, ABC had become the undisputed leader of auto racing telecasts. They had begun televising the Indianapolis 500 in prime time on the same day -- delayed several hours. By 1970, ABC had begun to televise the final hour and a half of a number of NASCAR events live. In Greenville, S.C., on April 10, 1971, they had aired a 100-mile Winston Cup Grand National race on a half-mile track live from start-to-finish. From 1974-1978, ABC had televised the final portion of the Daytona 500 live. Usually the final 200 miles or so had been aired live.
CBS didn't get back into televising NASCAR races until 1975. All previous CBS presentations had been tape-delayed broadcasts. During Speedweeks of 1978 -- as ABC was preparing to do their fifth straight Daytona 500, Barry Frank, Senior Vice-President of CBS Sports was negotiating with Bill France Sr. for the rights to televise the 1979 Daytona 500. "I can say that we have discussed this with CBS," Big Bill said at the close of the 1978 Speedweeks activities. "I think at this time I would rather not make any statements on the matter."
The official statement came on May 15, 1978, in New York. Frank and Executive Producer Bernie Hoffman announced that CBS had signed a five-year pact with Daytona International Speedway to televise the Daytona 500 from start-to-finish beginning in 1979. The network would set aside four hours to air the entire race. "These are the finest stock car drivers in the world," Frank said. "It assures CBS of a strong viewing audience. It is the gemstone of our major auto racing package."
But CBS did not come to Daytona Beach merely to televise the Daytona 500. They taped four other races for later broadcast: the inaugural Busch Class, a 50-mile invitational event for the 1978 pole winners; the two 125-mile qualifiers, which were aired on the day before the 500; and the ARCA 200, in which Kyle Petty won his first career start, aired on April 28.
Sunday, Feb. 18, dawned cool and rainy. By late morning the rain had stopped and track officials began the time-consuming track drying process. The event got underway 10 minutes late with the first 15 laps being run under caution to complete the drying of the track. Then the field of 41 screaming cars got the green flag. Pole winner Buddy Baker dropped off the pace immediately with a balky engine. He was out of the race within 20 laps.
In the 32nd lap, Bobby and Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough tangled off the backstretch. All three went sliding into the muddy infield -- and all lost at least one lap. Yarborough got stuck in the mud and fell three laps off the pace. With the help of caution flags, both Donnie and Yarborough managed to climb back into the lead lap. With just over 50 miles to go, Donnie and Cale hooked up in a draft and pulled away from the remainder of the field. They took the white flag nearly a half lap ahead of A.J. Foyt, Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, who were battling for third place.
Allison, in the Hoss Ellington Oldsmobile, led the charge onto the backstretch. Yarborough, wheeling Junior Johnson's Oldsmobile, made his move a few yards down the long straight. Yarborough whipped his car under Allison. But Donnie, keeping a careful eye on his rear view mirror, swooped down low to block Cale's move. Keeping his foot on the throttle, Cale pulled beside Allison -- and dropped down another lane. Allison kept moving down low until the racing groove was gone. Before he knew it, Cale was in the dirt at 200 mph. His car bobbled a little and angled back onto the track where it collided with Allison.
The cars separated, then headed toward each other again. They locked together and slammed into the third turn wall. Both cars spun to a halt in the infield. Foyt, seeing the yellow caution light flash on, momentarily backed off allowing Petty and Waltrip to pass. The trio charged past the crash site with Petty in front. Waltrip attempted a slingshot off the fourth corner but Petty reached the finish line first. Waltrip was a close second and Foyt third. Allison got fourth place and Yarborough fifth based on their 199 laps completed. Petty ended a 45-race skid. He had not won since the 1977 Firecracker 400.
As Petty cruised around after taking the checkered flag, he noticed a bunch of commotion inside the third turn. Yarborough and the Allison brothers were scrapping on the ground, throwing punches and kicking each other. Bobby Allison had stopped on the track to check on the condition of his brother and soon got into the fracas.
All of it was captured by the CBS cameras. And a lot of people had watched the four hour telecast. The Daytona 500 was the top-rated show during each half hour. Overall, the program got a 10.5 rating -- or about 16,000,000 viewers. During the final half hour, the ratings had jumped to 13.5. ABC, which was televising the Superstars olympic-like competition for various well known sports personalities, drew a 9.4 rating. A golf tournament on NBC had a 5.5.
CBS Spokesman Beano Cook said the network was excited with the high ratings. "We are very, very pleased," said Cook. "For a race that long to get this kind of rating is great. We would have been pleased with a 9.0, but 10.5 is phenomenal." The show was produced by Michael Pearl and directed by Robert Fishman. The pit producer was Bob Stenner. "A lot of times you walk out of the (production) truck and you don't know if you did well or not," said Pearl. "This time I walked out with the feeling 'this worked.'" CBS would win a National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Emmy for the telecast.
NASCAR's biggest showcase event had turned into a widely viewed slugfest. Millions of people, who had never watched an auto race before, had just seen NASCAR's finest duke it out. The unbelievable climax -- with all the punches, split lips and ill-feelings -- prompted NASCAR to publicly declare that the sanctioning body "would not tolerate" that kind of behavior. But it was that behavior which generated national interest in the Southern sport of Stock car racing. Cale, Donnie and Bobby were fined and placed on probation.
Jim Foster, Vice President for Corporate Communication of the International Speedway Corporation, noted that the entire sport -- from its grass roots to the major leagues -- would benefit from the televised Daytona 500. "It means that a lot of people who had never seen a race before were exposed to one," said Foster. "That's going to help us and every other track in the country." The track which benefited most was North Carolina Motor Speedway, which presented the season's second race. The Richmond 400 had been snowed out and postponed two weeks.
Frank Wilson, Vice-President of NCMS, watched gleefully as inquiries from all over the country came through his office. "Our ticket sales are up for three reasons," said Wilson, "and the Daytona 500 telecast is one of them. We're getting inquiries about tickets from people who, by the gist of their conversations and questions, obviously weren't interested in racing previously. They have to be the people who were attracted by what they saw on TV."
In Rockingham's Carolina 500, Cale and Donnie got into it again. In the 10th lap -- while battling for the lead -- both went spinning through the third turn. This time, they gobbled up several other contenders. While Yarborough and Allison said the incident was "just a racing accident," other drivers fumed. NASCAR accepted the opinions that Cale and Donnie offered and took no further disciplinary actions.
Two Pettys -- Again
For the first time since 1964, there would be two Petty's in the starting field. Kyle Petty, Richard's 18-year-old son, had earned the 18th starting position in a Dodge Magnum. For the past two years, Kyle had expressed an interest in driving race cars. All along Richard said Kyle wouldn't start racing until he was 21. Lee Petty, the patriarch of the Petty clan, didn't permit Richard to begin racing until he was 21.
In the spring of 1978, bushy-haired Kyle began to work in the shops at Petty Enterprises. "He needs to work on the car," said Richard in April of 1978. "He's got to understand everything about the car before he ever gets in and starts driving it. He goes to school a half day and then works in the shop. He tells me he definitely wants to try driving a race car. Where he goes is anybody's guess." During the races, Kyle worked on the pit crew. His assignment was official "tire carrier." Richard switched from Dodge to Chevrolet in the middle of the 1978 season. The ill-handling Dodge Magnums had been collecting dust in the corner of the shop.
But Richard decided he would dust one of them off for Kyle and let him begin his career a couple of years earlier than anticipated. "The trend today is toward the superspeedways," explained Richard. "If he did well on the short tracks, he'd have to unlearn everything he learned when he finally came to a big track. And if he can't cut it here, there's no sense in messing around on the short tracks."
In private test sessions, Richard and Kyle went on the high banks of Daytona and ran together. Hour after hour Richard showed Kyle the ropes. He taught him about drafting and what line to take in the corners. "I can talk till I'm blue," said Richard. "But when it comes right down to it, he's going to have to go on instinct." In the opening round of qualifying for the ARCA 200, John Rezek put his Chevrolet on the pole at 191.416 mph. Young Kyle qualified second at 189.243.
Kyle said he didn't feel much pressure on the morning of the race. "If it's there, I don't feel it," he said. "I'm not the favorite. I know I probably won't win the race." Kyle's blue and white Dodge -- sponsored by Valvoline -- led most of the way in the 80-lap, 200-mile race. He had trouble with pit stops -- getting slowed down in plenty of time to get the car stopped at the right place, and then getting out without choking the engine. But as the green flag came out with four laps to go, Petty was a car length in front of pole sitter Rezek. For the final 10 miles, Petty kept a narrow lead. As the pair came off the fourth turn for the final time, Petty held off Rezek's last effort at a slingshot and won by two car lengths. "A lot of people are going to be shaking their heads over this day for a long time," Buddy Arrington told Richard moments after the checkered flag fell.
Kyle's first crack at the Winston Cup Grand National Series came in May at Charlotte. While practicing for the World 600, he crashed on successive days. The mangled remains were taken back to Randleman, N.C., before qualifying started. Kyle tried again to make the Firecracker 400 starting field. But another wreck during qualifying put him in Richard's pit crew on race day instead of the starting field. His first NASCAR start was in a Grand American event at Riverside on June 9. Petty had qualified 12th for the 200 kilometer event, and he moved to sixth in the early laps. Transmission failure knocked him down to a 15th place finish in the 35-car field.
For the Talladega 500, Kyle stayed off the concrete walls and registered a 186.297 mph lap, which earned him the 18th starting spot. Father Richard started 13th with a speed of 188.267 mph. Kyle didn't win the Talladega 500. But he did keep his nose clean and finished in ninth place, seven laps behind winner Darrell Waltrip. Richard finished fourth and fell 229 points behind Waltrip in the Winston cup standings.
A Stirring Championship Battle
As Stock car racing was enjoying it's expanding popularity, Waltrip, in his first of a rewritten five year contract with the DiGard team, had sprinted to a healthy point lead, staying in front through all but one of the season's first 19 races. A few weeks after Talladega, the tour made its annual pilgrimage to Darlington for the Southern 500.
Darrell and Richard started in the second row. Right behind them was David Pearson, who had split with the Wood Brothers after the Rebel 500 at the same track in April. In that race, Pearson peeled out of the pits too soon and the left-side wheels flew off at the end of pit road. Although Glen and Leonard Wood said the pit incident didn't have anything to do with their decision to put Neil Bonnett in the car, Pearson was out of a job two days later.
The Southern 500 was Pearson's fourth race since losing his ride with the Wood Brothers. Dale Earnhardt, the talented rookie driver for the Rod Osterlund team, had crashed hard at Pocono on July 30. He had broken both collar bones when he hit the wall after blowing a tire. Osterlund asked Pearson to fill in for Earnhardt until he could return. Pearson accepted the offer.
The 'Silver Fox' ran second at Talladega, fourth at Michigan and seventh at Bristol. Pearson chased Waltrip most of the way. With matters well in hand, Waltrip let his concentration slip and he tapped the wall with just 70 laps to go. The mishap gave Pearson the lead. In his haste to catch up, Waltrip hit the wall again, leaving Pearson a clear path to Victory Lane. Pearson scored his 104th career win by a two-lap margin over upstart driver Bill Elliott. Waltrip finished 11th and left Darlington with a 162 point lead over Petty. The point lead grew to 187 points following the 24th event of the year at Richmond.
In the next four races, Petty lopped 170 points off Waltrip's lead. Following the October 21 500-miler at Rockingham, Petty took an eight point lead -- the first time in the 1979 season that he had led the point standings. There were just two races to go. In the Dixie 500 at Atlanta, Waltrip finished fourth and Petty was sixth. Waltrip took a two point lead to Ontario for the season finale. Petty said he was going to Ontario to "win the race. We're going to run hard all day. We ain't going to play it safe -- just to finish." He qualified fourth.
Waltrip's DiGard team played a more conservative role. "Let's just say it was unanimous," said Waltrip of the decision to sacrifice horsepower for more reliability. "Richard kept saying he came to win the race and not to worry about the points. I believed him, but none of the rest of my people did. We came here to finish." Waltrip qualified 10th.
Benny Parsons and Buddy Baker swapped the lead for the first five laps. Then Petty dashed in front to lead the sixth lap. That got him five bonus points for leading a single lap and a tentative three point lead in the point battle. Waltrip ran just behind the leaders but never led. On lap 38 of the 200 lapper, John Rezek looped his car off the second turn. Waltrip had to spin his car out to avoid hitting Rezek. Waltrip got turned around the right way and scampered to the pits.
In the meantime, the pace car had not yet gone onto the track -- and the rest of the leaders put a lap on Waltrip. He spent the rest of the afternoon trying to get back in the lead lap. Seven cars finished on the lead lap. Parsons nipped Bobby Allison by 0.42-seconds to win the race. Cale Yarborough was third with Baker fourth and Petty fifth. Petty earned 160 points. Waltrip wound up seventh after completing 199 laps. He received 147 points. Petty won his seventh Winston Cup Grand National championship by only 11 points -- the closest margin in the history of NASCAR's premier circuit.
"Last year (when he went winless) was the low ebb of my 21 years in racing," said Petty. "From that standpoint, winning the title again is satisfying. But really, to me, seven is just a number one higher than six. Now, if I'd have won the race, I'd be sky-high. I wanted to take the title by winning. That's how it should be done."