How a Brawl Made the 1979 Daytona 500 NASCAR's Greatest Show on TV
The 1979 Daytona 500 was the first live, start-to-finish superspeedway event televised by a major network.
On the last lap, entering the backstretch for the 200th time, leader Donnie Allison and second-running Cale Yarborough began wrecking each other—which led to a perfect-for-TV brawl.
Meanwhile, Richard Petty drove past en route his seventh Daytona 500 victory.
Many will say the 1950 Southern 500 at Darlington has been NASCAR’s most important race since it was the first “national” stock car race. Others argue for the 1994 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis since acceptance at the Speedway signaled that NASCAR finally had “arrived.”
Still others say the 2001 Daytona 500 that took Dale Earnhardt because nothing has been quite the same since then.
All have merit, but don’t measure up to the 1979 Daytona 500. Among those who study the sport, the ’79 “Great American Race” is generally accepted as NASCAR’s most important moment.
Consider its credentials:
• The year’s second race was the first live, start-to-finish superspeedway event televised by a major network. After years of spotty catch-as-catch-can coverage, stock car racing’s biggest show was going big time via CBS on Sunday afternoon.
• As luck would have it, a huge snowstorm on Feb. 17-18 kept most Americans east of the Mississippi River homebound. Streets were almost deserted; basketball and hockey were postponed; many restaurants and theaters closed; interstate travel stalled. Much of the country had nothing to do except watch TV, including America’s biggest stock car race, something many had never seen.
• For NASCAR, the D-500 at Daytona International Speedway couldn’t have been better. On the last lap, entering the backstretch for the 200th time, leader Donnie Allison and second-running Cale Yarborough began wrecking each other. They banged side-to-side several times before hitting the Turn 3 wall and sliding down the banking together. Seconds later, Richard Petty drove past en route his seventh Daytona 500 victory, this one ahead of Darrell Waltrip and A.J. Foyt.
• Seconds later, CBS cameras caught Allison and Yarborough scuffling at the accident scene. Punches were thrown and helmets were swung as they vented their displeasure with each other. There wasn’t much damage, but two stars fighting was unusual in the “new” NASCAR. The fight briefly escalated when Bobby Allison arrived to help his brother.
In the end, nothing much came of the wreck or the fight except this: all those homebound TV-watchers had something new and exciting to talk about when they returned to work. For many, the ’79 Daytona 500 launched their interest in NASCAR racing.
Later, when asked whether he might fine the drivers for fighting, Bill France Jr. said, “FINE THEM? FINE THEM? Boy, I might give them all a bonus.”