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April 12, 2010
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.
But for Donnie's crashed rival, Yarborough, "cooling down" was not on the agenda. Outraged that Donnie's wild driving had knocked him out of the race, Yarborough went after Bobby, the innocent bystander. As Bobby slyly recalled the fracas, "Cale started beating my fist with his nose."
The "brawl that started it all" was in fact nothing more than a sloppy slugfest of roundhouse punches, flailing fists, and hurled helmets. It was gone in 60 seconds—but captured forever on film. Buddy Baker, the fastest qualifier in the race, remembered the dustup as "more of a slow waltz" than a fight: "If I ever get beat up, I wanna get beat up like that." But 10 million viewers nationwide stayed glued to their television sets for the scuffle's brief duration, solidifying NASCAR's outlaw image—and practically guaranteeing its future success. From that moment on, viewers could not wait to tune in to the next NASCAR race: who would crash another driver this time? Would the other guy crash him back? Might they jump from their cars and start swinging again?
NASCAR's romance with television—and thus the American consumer's love affair with NASCAR—was off and running.
Bechtel fills his recounting of the breakout 1979 season with a raft of colorful characters and their rowdy tales. After that bang-up start in Daytona, the season accelerated into an epic battle for the NASCAR championship that would not be settled until the final race. The reader rides shotgun as Kyle Petty ("King" Richard's son) makes his terrifying, 200-mile-per-hour racing debut at Daytona. We follow in the tire tracks of seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty and Darrell "Jaws" Waltrip (driving a car dubbed "Maybelline") as they contest one of the hardest-fought Winston Cup championships in history. And there are glimpses of future greatness, too, with a youthful (and fearless) Dale "Ironhead" Earnhardt knocking NASCAR for a loop en route to becoming NASCAR Rookie of the Year.
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