Daytona 500 1979 – fight to the finish
As NASCAR’s Sprint Cup daredevils get ready for this weekend’s season-opener, the Daytona 500 at the fearsome Florida Speedway, it’s worth wallowing in a bit of stock car nostalgia.
The blue-riband 500 has been the most important event in what is unequivocally America’s biggest motorsport series since it first joined the calendar in 1959. A win at Daytona ranks pretty close to the top of any NASCAR ace’s CV – just ask the 33 men who have stood in victory lane.
For 1979, the big guns – brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison, Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty, who had won the great race eight times between them – again put on a spectacular display in their brutal Oldsmobile Cutlass and Ford Torino V8s. The race was a classic stock car slipstreamer, with the Allisons and reigning champion Yarborough all colliding early on but able to return to the race following bodge-job repairs in pitlane. In fact, it was Yarborough’s charge back through the field that gave the 120,000-strong crowd its biggest thrill.
That was until the very last, 200th lap. Leader Donnie Allison had man-on-a-mission Yarborough bearing down on him – cue desperate attempts by Allison to break the tow. The inevitable collision sent the crowd into a frenzy, particularly when it became apparent that third-placed Petty was going to add a sixth Daytona 500 win to his incredible record.
But it was the post-race shenanigans that provided an extraordinary closing chapter to the 1979 event – and gave NASCAR an unprecedented amount of extra airtime on TVs around the country. Allison (“I was the leader, I could do what I wanted”) and Yarborough (“It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen in racing”) had stopped on the infield at Turn 3 on the slowing-down lap to air their grievances with each other. While the disgruntled pair were yelling at each other, Bobby Allison (“I just rode up there to see if they were both okay”) had arrived. Bobby’s race had been spoiled by the early coming-together between the trio. Obscenities rang out across the speedway, before flailing punches and kicking legs turned the post mortem into a bloodbath. It was only the intervention of a group of nearby police officers that brought the sorry mess to an end.
“I was trying to talk to Donnie when Cale started hollering at me,” Bobby explained. “Then he hit me in the face with his helmet.”
“It was the lightweight championship of the world after that,” mused Donnie.
However, and as with most things, once a little time goes by, a person can see things an entirely different way. “I think it made a lot of fans,” Yarborough said 28 years later. “People looked at that and said, ‘These boys are real people and they do real things.‘ Looking back now, I think it’s one of the biggest things that ever happened in the sport. It got people’s attention.”
NASCAR drivers and fans still talk about the 1979 Daytona 500 – it helped put the sport on the map.