Sunday, February 15, 2009

"It's crap, is what it's like. That's just honest."

Later today the green flag will drop on the 51st running of the Daytona 500. In my mind, the day will be marked by two events. One good, and one bad, for someone who grew up following the sport at the end of its classic period in the 1970s. But strangely, the two events are related by one word, or shall I say name....Petty.

The good event happened 30 years ago this week, during the 1979 Daytona 500. It was the day NASCAR became a player on the national sports scene, yet still wasn't handcuffed by the political correctness and image consciousness that exists today in the sport. Richard Petty won the 1979 Daytona 500 (the sixth of his seven Daytona 500 victories), but it was the events in the moments just prior to and right after Petty's win that will always be remembered about the 1979 race.

The 1979 race marked the first time the Daytona 500 was televised in its entirety from flag to flag. CBS was airing the entire race after years of only the start and finish being shown on ABC's Wide World of Sports. The flag to flag coverage was a milestone for the sport, which up to that time had very little network TV coverage. Most fans were forced to do what my dad on Sundays, find the race on the radio and try to visualize what was happening as a team of announcers stationed around the track yelled over the roar of the engines.

I remember my dad and my uncle being beyond excited when it was announced 1979 Daytona 500 was going to be televised by CBS. But, that excitement was short lived because soon it was learned the CBS affiliate here Washington, channel 9, was not going to carry the race. An alternative plan was soon devised. My grandfather lived outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia in Spotsylvania. We were lucky enough that he lived within reception distance 0f the Richmond CBS affiliate. So, despite the prediction of a major snow storm all along the east coast, my dad, uncle, cousin and I all loaded up that Sunday morning and made the trek down I-95.

My favorite driver at the time, Buddy Baker, had won the pole for the race. He was always good on the super speedways where speeds at the time approached 200 miles per hour. But Baker went out early with engine trouble, leaving the race to be decided by a group of contenders that included Petty, A.J. Foyt, Darell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Donnie Allison and a rookie driving an unsponsored car number 2, Dale Earnhardt.

As the laps wore down, Allison and Yarborough distanced themselves from everyone else. The two of them had been in a crash that also involved Allison's brother Bobby earlier in the day that had put Yarborough two laps down. Yaborough had clawed back into contention, making up the laps when caution flags came out. Allison was running first and Yarborough second on the final lap, when this finish brought NASCAR its most famous moment up until that time:

As Petty celebrated his victory, Yarborough slugged it out with the Allison brothers as a national television audience watched. Our part of the audience in Spotsylvania, Virginia was going crazy as we watched the race and fight, paying very little attention to the snow that was starting to pour outside.

The finish to the 1979 Daytona 500 has been described as NASCAR's first water cooler moment. Many non-racing fans had tuned in that Sunday thanks to CBS' coverage and thanks to the severe winter storm that engulfed large parts of the eastern U.S. The general public was talking about NASCAR for the first time. And, we were defintely rehashing it as we fought the snow back up I-95 to Arlington.

You may have noticed in the video clip that one of CBS' annoucers mentioned Richard Petty's son, Kyle, was on hand to greet Petty after Petty's victory in what was NASCAR's grandest day. Kyle Petty went on to become a driver himself and a part owner of the family's racing team, Petty Enterprises. Kyle Petty had followed Richard into stock car racing much as Richard had followed his father, Lee, into the profession. All three Petttys raced under the Petty Enterprises flag and at least one Petty had raced in each of the Daytona 500's fifty runnings leading into 2009. But, cliche as it is, all good things must come to an end.

With the ecomomic downturn, several NASCAR racing teams have lost their sponsors. Many major corporations are no longer interested in ponying up the tens of millions of dollars required to be a primary sponsor of a Sprint Cup team. Unfortunately, Petty Enterprises fell victim to this trend and the Pettys were forced to merge with Gillette Evernham Racing. As with most corporate mergers, some officers and employees are forced out. In this merger, the victim was Kyle Petty. So today, for the first time in the 51 year history of the Daytona 500, a driver with the last name of Petty will not be racing.

Understandably, Kyle Petty is upset. In an interview earlier this week, he said wouldn't even watch today's race and said this in reference to his being forced out after the merger, "It's crap, is what it's like. That's just honest." Missing the classic days of NASCAR, I have to agree. Today is the end of an era and that's not a good thing.

A more in depth look at the finish of the 1979 Daytona 500 can be seen in this clip.

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