A five-minute stroll through your local Wal-Mart, Lowe's, or Home Depot will confirm what your cable-television provider already knows: we have become a NASCAR nation, a realm of fanatically loyal viewers with an inexhaustible appetite for NASCAR-related TV programming and product tie-ins. The sheer ubiquity of NASCAR today makes it difficult to conceive of a time when the sport of stock-car racing was accorded only passing notice by media outlets north of the Mason-Dixon line.
Before 1979, however, not a single major television network regularly broadcast auto racing of any kind. Race fans had to largely content themselves with the limited four-wheeled fare offered up by ABC's Wide World of Sports, which occasionally included motorsports in its weekly broadcasts. The wisdom of the day held that live broadcasts of auto racing were a sort of mercantile suicide: racing was unpredictable. Oftentimes, it was boring. And everywhere, its fan base was relatively modest. Unless the national television audience had a guarantee of being entertained, it was not about to sit still for three and a half hours to watch live, flag-to-flag coverage of a 500-mile marathon.
Not even the hallowed Indianapolis 500 was televised live; instead the race was taped, then broadcast in its entirety that night.
Mark Bechtel's book, He Crashed Me So I Crashed Him Back, tells how and why all that changed practically overnight. It's the improbable story of the 1979 Daytona 500 and the groundbreaking television broadcast that launched NASCAR onto the national stage. Fast-paced and fascinating, He Crashed Me captures the confluence of events, personalities, and sheer dumb luck that dropped the green flag on television's love affair with stock-car racing. Thirty years later, that infatuation shows little sign of taking its foot off the gas.
In 1979, NASCAR—an acronym for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing—had just begun to outgrow its roots in bootleggers' hot rods designed to outrun Revenuers. Eight years earlier, NASCAR founding president "Big" Bill France, Sr. had recruited the sport's first big sponsor: R. J. Reynolds. The cigarette conglomerate urgently needed the stock-car association—and vice versa. Banned from advertising tobacco on television, Reynolds was seeking an alternative outlet for its ad dollars. NASCAR, for its part, hoped to attract a sponsor with enough clout to grow its championship series and expand its marketing reach beyond the Deep South.
The only piece missing from France's grand vision was a little thing called television.
Bechtel's book reveals how that first TV contract for NASCAR came about, and how CBS's 1979 gamble on the Daytona 500 paid off beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Even Mother Nature had a hand in the race's success; a snowstorm blanketed much of the East Coast and Midwest over the February 18 race weekend, guaranteeing the broadcast a near-captive national television audience.
But nature's collusion would not be enough. It took a fistfight at the end of the race to push NASCAR's television profile over the top.
The most cynical promoter could not have scripted a more thrilling race finale. A wild, fender-bashing, 190-mile-per-hour last lap eliminated the two race leaders within sight of the checkered flag, handing the race to a surprised (and hugely popular) Richard "The King" Petty. Nor did the on-track excitement end there. As Petty pulled his famous number 43 STP Oldsmobile into Victory Lane to receive his trophy and a kiss on the cheek from the race queen, the ousted drivers, Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough, crawled from their wrecked cars (only their egos had been injured) and squared off like gladiators before God and the CBS television cameras. The pair was soon joined by Donnie Allison's brother (and fellow race contestant) Bobby, who had pulled his own race car onto the infield grass during his post-finish "cool-down" lap to see if Donnie needed a ride back to the pits.