On February 18, 1979, many Americans were confined to their homes and glued to their TVs. On that day, a snowstorm covered the east coast and kept many indoors. Confined and bored, millions tuned into the main sports program for the day: The Daytona 500
In the late 70s, NASCAR was a relatively young league. Stock car racing was popular in the southeast, but not so much in the rest of the country. That all changed in 1979, when CBS agreed to broadcast the first NASCAR race live from start to finish.
That race was the ‘79 Daytona 500.
Recently, ESPN called that race “the greatest finish in the history of motorsports.”
Thousands of NASCAR virgins became NASCAR fans that day.
In the final lap, Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough had a substantial lead over the field. After jostling for first, Allison and Yarborough collided into the wall. The crash captivated viewers and left the door open for a new leader.
In dramatic fashion, NASCAR legend Richard Petty crossed the checkered line first.
But there was another event inside the track, after the race, that enthralled the television audience.
Bobby Allison, another pro driver and Donnie’s brother, drove up to Donnie after the crash to check on him. The brothers proceeded to exchange blows with Yarborough in front of a national audience on live television.
The fight, the race, and the extra television eyeballs generated some of the highest TV ratings in the sport’s history. Around 16 million people watched the telecast, which received a 10.5 rating. The ‘79 race ranks as the fifth highest rated Daytona 500 in NASCAR history.
The ‘79 Daytona is credited by some as the race that drove NASCAR into the mainstream.
NASCAR is returning today at Darlington Raceway amidst a global pandemic and a country with little live sports offerings.
Since the season stopped in early march, drivers have been getting virtual laps in via iRacing. The simulator gives drivers the opportunity to compete with one another and broadcast the eSport to a younger and more diverse audience.
But those ambitions for a new audience were put on hold in April when driver, Kyle Larson, used the n-word in an iRacing broadcast.
Larson apologized, lost his main sponsors and was suspended from NASCAR indefinitely.
Since Larson’s iRacing debacle, NASCAR has modified its schedule to meet the needs of travel and lost time. With most drivers and teams located around the Charlotte, N.C. area, all of the upcoming races will be in the southeast. And for the next two weeks, drivers will race twice a week.
NASCAR also has sponsors to please. On every car, there are about a dozen brands who stand to lose money as long as the engines remain quiet.
Today, NASCAR will be the only game in town. It’s another Sunday when Americans are stuck inside desperate for live, anything-can-happen sports.
Could NASCAR see history repeat itself in Darlington?
For a sports starved nation, one can only hope.