By admin | February 12, 2009
By Richard Allen
Thirty years ago this weekend I was doing what most of the eastern half of the country was doing. I was sitting in my living room watching the greatest race in NASCAR history unfold.
Of course, no one knew it was a race to be remembered for the ages as it was taking place. However, history was made at the very drop of the green flag. For the first time, a major television network had decided to air flag to flag coverage of a stock car race. CBS was the network to gamble that an entire nation would watch. Unknown to them at the time they made the gamble, they were about to hit the jackpot.
As it turned out, the nation did watch, whether they originally intended to or not. Most of the heavily populated areas of the eastern United States were snowed in by a massive storm which had swept up the east coast in the days leading up to the ground breaking race. CBS had their audience.
The race did not disappoint. In typical NASCAR fashion, everything fell perfectly into place. Rains moved out in time and once the engines fired, the racing was every bit as exciting as lead announcer Ken Squier had promised his bosses at CBS it would be.
The names who would play out the drama that has been shown and discussed so many times since are among the biggest in the history of the sport. Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt, Darrell Waltrip, Buddy Baker along with brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison were the main characters in this show.
From initial drop of the green flag Yarborough and the Allisons along with pole sitter Baker established themselves as the class of the field. Baker dropped out early due to engine failure.
The first major happening of the race took place on lap 32. Donnie Allison spun, causing his older brother and Yarborough to take evasive action. All three cars wound up in the mud soaked infield. All lost time but Yarborough suffered the most, losing four laps while his car was being repaired.
Yarborough would use a series of caution flags to make up the ground he had lost and thus set the stage for a wild finish. In the meantime, Petty, Waltrip and Foyt were keeping pace, running about half a lap behind the trio at the front.
The captive television audience was treated to one of the most exciting finishes in NASCAR history. Bobby Allison had fallen off the lead lap but had kept pace with his brother and Yarborough. The three cars took the white flag with Yarborough riding just behind Donnie Allison.
Bobby Allison had seemingly cleared out of the way so as not to interfere with the two drivers racing for the win. Yarborough made a â€˜slingshotâ€™ move and tried to go below the younger Allison. The two cars began bumping and banging as they moved closer to the wet grass of the infield. Eventually, the cars slammed together hard enough to send both of them sliding into the turn 3 wall and out of contention for the win.
With the television cameras desperately panning to find the suddenly new race for the lead between Petty, Waltrip and Foyt, Squier skillfully talked the cars to the finish. The cameras picked up the action just in time to see Petty hold off his pursuers to take his sixth Daytona 500 checkered flag.
As if all of that were not enough, there was still more excitement to be played out. When Bobby Allison stopped to check on his brotherâ€™s condition he was punched by the frustrated Yarborough, who had thought the elder Allison had been blocking him. A three way free for all ensued with the television audience given a front row seat.
Hard to believe it has been thirty years since all of that took place. I was an eleven year old kid who idolized my name sake Richard Petty. I thought I was the happiest person in the world. Turns out, it was probably the executives at NASCAR and CBS who held that title.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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