Friday, August 7, 2009

And there's a fight


By Eric Johnson

It was Noon on Monday, February 19, 2007 and I was sitting by myself in a booth at the Hooters on International Speedway Boulevard in Daytona International Speedway. I had three hours to kill before my flight was to leave for home for Orange County, California, so there I sat, looking out the front windows and directly at the tri-oval grandstands of Daytona International Speedway. "How in the hell did 200,000 people clear out of this town so quickly?" I said to myself. The night before, while standing on the pit wall with the crew of Boris Said's #60 Ford, I, along with over 200,000 other fans, had watched Kevin Harvick with the Daytona 500 over Mark Martin by .02 seconds.

The closest finish since the first 500 in 1959 (it took three days and a hell of a lot of finish line photographs to figure out Lee Petty had won that one), it was one of the most amazing things I had ever witnessed. (Sterling Marlin's #14 Waste Management Chevrolet sliding upside down on its roof and slamming the wall right next us and Clint Bowyer's Chevrolet - also on its roof and on fire - burning to the ground directly before us made the finish all that more memorable).

Back to Hooters. Trying to decide whether I should order a salad or another beer, I noticed the TV monitors behind the bar broadcasting the finish of the 1979 Daytona 500. The televisions were tuned to the ESPN 2 network and a documentary on the single greatest moment in NASCAR racing history bounced off the satellites and came beaming off those SONY big screens in that beer-soaked Hooters bar.

And that's when the memories came flooding back.

"I'll take another beer," I told the Hooters girl as now I had something to concentrate on (meaning the TV and "The Fight").

The date was Sunday, February 18, 1979 - 28 years TO THE DAY of the Daytona 500 I had witnessed - and for the first time in history, the CBS network was going to televise the race live from flag-to-flag. I was 12 years old at the time and the fact that the Daytona 500 was going to be broadcast live was big god damn deal in the Johnson household. My old man, a sportsman car racer, tuned in CBS while I sat on the floor watching the race while building a model Funny Car. Outside, it was nothing but white. What would later become known as the Presidents Day Snowstorm of 1979, a blizzard
wreaked havoc on the Midwestern and Northeastern sections of the United States, so NASCAR had something of a captive audience. Chris Economaki,David Hobbs and Ken Squire called the race, and CBS trotted out a new invention: The "In-Car" camera.

The first 15 laps of the race were run under the yellow flag due to rain, and on lap number 32, Donnie Allison, Cale Yarbrough and Bobby Allison all spun in the wet, muddy backstretch infield. Yarbrough would fall two laps down (and would eventually get them back) while the Allison brothers shook it all off and kept on chugging.

As fate would have it, the finish of the 1979 Daytona all came down to the 200th and final lap. In his big, hulking #1 Hawaiian Tropic Oldsmobile, Donnie Allison was leading the way back to the finish line. Immediately behind and drafting Allison was Yarbrough and his #11 Busch Beer Oldsmobile.
On the backstretch, Yarbrough attempted a slingshot pass on Allison.

"Donnie had a great car," reflected Yarbrough through the Hooters TV. "But I passed him twice on the backstretch when cautions came out to get laps back. I knew at the end I could do it again."

Allison refused to let Cale by him a third time and blocked the burly Oldsmobile so aggressively, that while door to door, Yarbrough's left tires touched the wet infield grass. Cale's big blue and white Oldsmobile lost traction and clouted Allison's car. Desperately trying to get their cars straightened out, it was a Detroit Symphony of crushing metal and roaring V8s and the two machines bashed and popped off of one another three more
times. It all ended up against the wall in turn three, the two cars locked together, sliding down the 31-degree banking and coming to a stop in the muddy infield, a smoking heap hissing with burnt oil and boiled fluids.

Richard Petty would flash by to win the race.

"Richard Petty has just won his sixth Daytona 500 and the crowd here is going absolutely mad!"

Meanwhile, Allison and Yarbrough scrambled to get out of their wounded automobiles. Upon doing so, and with steam coming out of their ears, they began to bitch at one another. Bobby Allison, seeing his brother squaring off with Yarbrough, swung his Ford down into the infield to see just what was up.

"I was trying to talk to Donnie when Cale started hollering at me," Bobbie explained. "Then he hit me in the face with his helmet."

"It was the lightweight championship of the world after that," mused Donnie.


With a national TV audience numbered in the millions watching on, kicking, punching and swearing a blue streak, the trio wrestled in the slop.

Back in Ohio, my dad was standing and talking to the TV set, "Holy shit!" he said. "Look at this!"

Myself, aged 10 and all, was in complete awe. This wasn't a TV sitcom or a cartoon or a made-for-TV movie, this was car racing and a bunch of dudes that wanted to win so badly they had completely lost their minds.

In the heat of the moment - and in the days that followed - Cale Yarbrough found the whole knuckle swinging, club wielding affair ridiculous. "It's the worst thing I've ever seen in racing," he would say in the newspapers that next week.

However, and as with most things, once a little time goers by, a person can see things an entirely different way. "I think it made a lot of fans," Yarbrough 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."

It certainly got mine. It was something I had never forgotten and to be sitting in front of Daytona International Speedway the day after the 2007 Daytona 500 and being reminded of it all brought a smile to my face.

I ordered another beer and watched on as ESPN 2 re-ran the documentary.

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