The 1979 Daytona 500 remains one of the most famous races in NASCAR history. Best remembered for a thrilling finish, it was also the first time the entire race was televised live. This was a major milestone for stock car racing which was still largely a Southern sport. Even the Indianapolis 500 was edited and broadcast in the evening at that time. It was NASCAR’s moment in the spotlight because a large snowstorm blanketed much of the East Coast and the Midwest. With millions of Americans at home, the potential for high ratings was great and the race did not disappoint.
Although rain threatened to postpone the race, the weather cleared shortly after the CBS broadcast began. Just as NASCAR had hoped, the race had a thrilling finish. Cale Yarborough attempted to pass leader Donnie Allison as they raced down the backstretch on the last lap. The two cars made contact several times before finally crashing in turn three. Richard Petty, stock car racing’s most famous star, drove by and won the race followed by Darrell Waltrip and A.J. Foyt. As Petty celebrated in victory lane, a fight broke out between Yarborough and Allison, who was joined by his brother Bobby in the brawl. The race made national headlines and helped establish NASCAR as a major American sport.
Cale Yarborough was inducted into the third class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame on January 20, 2012. Yarborough won three national championships and 83 races, including the Daytona 500 four times. Donnie Allison won 10 races, but never the Daytona 500.
For more information about that famous Daytona 500 and the entire 1979 NASCAR season see He Crashed Me, So I Crashed Him Back by Mark Bechtel.
The 54th Daytona 500 is February 26, 2012. In the meantime, enjoy this footage of the last two laps and the subsequent fight in the infield.
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