NASCAR rose in popularity in 1979 after the first nationally televised race ended with the leaders crashing on the last lap, and then proceeding to fight in the muddied infield grass. With only 3 channels, and much of the the East Coast snowed in, it quickly became nationally known
The 1979 Daytona 500, the 21st annual event, was the second race of the 1979 NASCAR Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) season. It was held on February 18, 1979. Critics consider the 1979 Daytona 500 to be the most important race in stock car history.
The race was Richard Petty’s sixth Daytona 500 win. A crash and subsequent fight between leaders Cale Yarborough andDonnie Allison, along with Donnie’s brother Bobby, brought national publicity to NASCAR. Motorsports announcer and editor Dick Berggren said: “Nobody knew it then, but that was the race that got everything going. It was the first ‘water cooler’ race, the first time people had stood around water coolers on Monday and talked about seeing a race on TV the day before. It took a while – years, maybe – to realize how important it was.
Donnie Allison took the lead on lap 178 with Yarborough right on his tail. These two cars pulled away during the final laps and led the next closest competitors by half a lap. Donnie Allison took the white flag and was leading the race on the final lap with Yarborough drafting him tightly. As Yarborough attempted a slingshot pass on the backstretch, Allison attempted to block him. Yarborough refused to give ground and as he pulled alongside Allison, his left side tires left the pavement and went into the wet and muddy infield grass. Yarborough lost control of his car and contacted Allison’s car halfway down the backstretch. As both drivers tried to regain control, their cars made contact three more times before locking together and crashing into the outside wall in turn three.The cars slid down the banking and came to rest in the infield. Richard Petty, who was over half a lap behind before the incident, went on to win. beating Darrell Waltrip by a car length.
After the wrecked cars of Donnie Allison and Yarborough settled in the infield grass (short of the finish line), the two drivers began to argue. After they stopped arguing, Bobby Allison, who was one lap down at that point, stopped where the wreck was and a fight broke out. With the leaders wrecking near the end of the last lap, the television audience was shown seconds of Petty’s win.
The story made the front page of The New York Times Sports section. NASCAR had arrived as a national sport, and began to expand from its Southeastern United States base and become a national sport, shedding its moonshine running roots along the way.
Reactions from Yarborough and the Allisons were, not surprisingly, different. Yarborough said “I was going to pass him and win the race, but he turned left and crashed me. So, hell, I crashed him back. If I wasn’t going to get back around, he wasn’t either.” Allison said “The track was mine until he hit me in the back,” he says. “He got me loose and sideways, so I came back to get what was mine. He wrecked me, I didn’t wreck him.”
The next morning both drivers faced an $80,000 fine for their actions. Notably Donnie and Cale complain to this day that they should not have been penalized.