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A snowbound U.S. discovers NASCAR

Millions of Americans trapped by a snowstorm tune in to a thrilling - and combative - Daytona 500.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 30, 1999


Snow is never good driving weather. For NASCAR and the Daytona 500, it was perfect.

Stock car racing had, for the most part, grown beyond its roots by the time NASCAR passed its 30th birthday. Sure, it still was predominantly the sport of good ol' boys, and a lot of the drivers still could tell stories about tearing around the backwoods of the Carolinas, getting corn liquor from the family still to the city by outrunning federal tax agents.

But the "stock" cars the moonshiners had driven had long since been supplanted by powerful racing machines with the logos of sponsors, from automotive products to laundry detergents, plastered on them. The dirt track was giving way to the superspeedway. And there was television.

The 1979 Daytona 500 would be the first stock car race to be televised live nationally from start to finish, "flag-to-flag coverage," CBS said. And on Feb. 18, NASCAR and the network caught a break. A snowstorm swept across much of the East Coast. Many more families would be staying home this Sunday. Watching television.

What they and the 125,000 fans at Daytona International Speedway saw was Richard Petty, driving against doctor's orders because he was recuperating from an operation for a stomach ulcer, chalk up the sixth of his seven Daytona 500 victories.

"I definitely lucked into this one," Petty said after ending a 45-race winless streak. "But if I'd been as lucky as I was today I would have won two-thirds of those races."

This race was a thriller from start to finish.

Especially the finish.

Petty took the lead on the final lap after Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough, their Oldsmobile Cutlasses running 1-2 for the last 10 laps, engaged in a backstretch fender-bender, then Yarborough and Bobby Allison, Donnie's brother, engaged in a post-race fight.

And an enthralled nation saw it all, as it happened.

Before carburetor restrictor plates at superspeedways harnessed the thrust of the cars, the best place to be on the last lap was second place. A skilled driver could use the draft created by the lead car to "slingshot" into the lead, tucking up close and then passing the front-runner on the inside.

Donnie Allison knew it was coming, and when Yarborough tried it, Allison closed down the inside line. The cars slammed into each other side by side. Yarborough wound up on the infield grass and, trying to recover, turned into Allison's left side. Both cars spun up the 31-degree-banked track, into the outer wall, then back down onto the grass, a mile from the checkered flag.

"Cale had made up his mind he would pass me low," Allison said later, "and I had my mind made up he was going to have to pass me high."

Yarborough had a different take, accusing the Allisons of collusion to keep him from winning. "Bobby was going to get higher than me on the track to keep me from passing Donnie on the right," he said, "then Donnie would do anything to cut me off down low."

Bobby, three laps down when the race ended, pulled onto the grass. By then, Yarborough had climbed out of his car. He reached through the screen on Bobby's window and punched him while they shouted obscenities at each other. Bobby emerged from his car while Yarborough tried to hit him with his helmet, then Bobby grabbed Yarborough's throat while Yarborough tried to kick him. Bystanders broke up the fight, and as Yarborough was led away he began cursing at Donnie, who tried to get at him but was restrained.

As soon as Petty took the checkered flag, CBS switched its cameras to the fisticuffs. The moment lasted only seconds, but the finish and the fight made an indelible mark on the American consciousness.


-- Information from Times files was used in this report.

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