Saturday, February 18, 2012

February 18 - This day in Petty history - part 2

1979 - Richard Petty wins his sixth Daytona 500 and 186th career race in what is arguably the most memorable NASCAR Winston Cup race in history for many reasons.

Ticket stub scan courtesy of Jerry Bushmire
Before Petty took the checkers, many wondered if his career was done. His last win had been at Daytona 18 months earlier in the 1977 Firecracker 400. He raced his STP Dodge Charger the rest of 1977 without a win. He began 1978 in a Dodge Magnum, but the wins didn't return. About two-thirds of the way through the season, he changed from Dodge to General Motors - but the results were the same. The only glimmers of hope were a close but controversial finish at Atlanta and a Winston West win in Phoenix, AZ. Most thought Petty had nipped Dave Marcis at the line to win at Atlanta, but Donnie Allison was ahead of them both and got the win. The Winston West win was a bit of a morale booster heading into the off-season, but the win didn't count as an official NASCAR Winston Cup victory.

Source: Motor Racing Programme Covers
Also, Richard's health coming into the Daytona 500 was a big question mark.
  • The stress of the losing streak - including how it affected the lives of his family and crew - wore on him.
  • The King had never been one to embrace an athlete's diet. He feasted on Pepsi colas, aspirin powders, and mayonnaise sandwiches.
  • Richard's son - Kyle - indicated he was ready to start his racing career. Richard agreed, and plans were put into action to help get a car ready, land a sponsor, and find a way to get Kyle some meaningful testing time.
  • Petty was at a crossroads of sorts with his sponsor since 1972, STP. As the 1979 season began, the 43 did not have the STP logos on the hood at the season-opening Riverside race or at Daytona.

The toll of all these variables in the years leading to the end of 1978 resulted in significant ulcers for the King. Shortly after his Phoenix Winston West win, he underwent stomach surgery. His physicians advised him to skip the early portion of the 1979 season to help his recovery. Instead, he qualified 6th at Riverside in January - though he finished 32nd because of a failed engine. And then he headed to Daytona for Speedweeks.

Source: Wilmington Morning-Star, December 8, 1978
Being back at the track likely helped vs. hurt Richard's recovery - at least publicly he was saying as much. His recovery took a big leap forward the Sunday before the 500. After former Petty Enterprises teammate, Buddy Baker, won the pole for the Daytona 500 and the inaugural Busch Clash (now known as the Bud Shootout), it was time for the ARCA 200.

Kyle was starting his first career race - at Daytona - on the outside of the front row - in one of Richard's hand-me-down Dodge Magnums discarded during the 1978 season. Despite some challenges during the race, Kyle made some crafty moves and won the race. The win was huge for Kyle, Petty Enterprises, Richard's healing, a lead-in story to the 500 for CBS television, etc. (For the career of this writer, however, I don't think Kyle's win had much of an impact at all. His article includes more failures than a college physics class.)

Heavy rains fell on the speedway the night before the race. After an extensive drying effort, the track was just about ready. CBS prepared to air its first live flag-to-flag race - and I'm sure they were puckered about the possibility of a delayed start or even a cancellation. Fortunately, the rain stopped, and the track dried pretty quickly.

Credit to and courtesy of Jerry Bushmire
Darrell Waltrip and his DiGard/Gatorade team took a bit of a risk and agreed to be a 'rabbit' for NASCAR. As the rest of the field followed the pace car, Waltrip agreed to rip a couple of laps at race-speed to make sure the track was completely dry. He radioed to his team and track officials that it was OK to drop the green. Had the track not been ready and/or if Waltrip had wrecked ... well, I'm not sure what Ol' DeeDubya and NASCAR had as Plan B.

Donnie Allison led almost half the race despite an early caution when he, brother Bobby Allison, and Cale Yarborough all spun. The three of them ended up in the soggy, sandy mud left from the overnight rains. Good fortunes fell to Donnie and Cale as they were able to unlap themselves - and Donnie even returned to leading laps.

Most race fans - young and old, vets and noobs, deeply interested and casual followers - are familiar with the race finish. Donnie and Cale found themselves again back at the front of the field with enough distance on third place A.J. Foyt to settle it between themselves. Instead, they crashed on the backstretch in front of a national TV audience, slid down to the same mud pit through which they spun earlier, jawed at each other as Bobby Allison pulled up to say 'wazzup?' and then had a brief scrap post-hyped to have been the second coming of The Thrilla in Manilla.

Meanwhile, Foyt backed off as word of the wreck happened allowing Petty and Waltrip to pass him. Late in the race, Waltrip was said to have dropped a cylinder. Even though he was able to draft Petty and Foyt, his engine apparently didn't have the burst it needed to make the key pass when it was time to go. With so much dampness in the air a few hours earlier that may have affected engine performance, I've often wondered if DW's rabbit laps to help start the race ended up coming back to haunt him as the checkers fell on the 43.

Legendary racing radio and TV announcer Ken Squier helped partner CBS Sports and the Daytona 500. Some sound bites stand the test of time - because of their spontaneity, brevity, and accuracy. Squier's post-race reactions as the winning 43 cruised down victory lane are included in that exclusive list of hall of fame exclamations:

And there's a fight! The tempers ... overflowing. They're angry.
They know they have lost. And what a bitter defeat.

Equally interesting to me, however, is how Squier helped the production crew and camera operators as Petty led Waltrip to the checkers. Once Donnie and Cale wrecked, everyone immediately knew someone from the next group of cars would win. But CBS couldn't seem to find them! One camera went to the start-finish line. Another one panned around. It required the on-air, calm, directing demeanor of Squier to help his team. I'm sure he was supposed to keep his eyes on the monitors, but he directed his crew to look towards turns three and four. Getting them reconnected with Petty's car helped CBS ensure they got the winning shot.

The call of the last lap and post-race fireworks by CBS' Ken Squier and David Hobbs...

And a historical revisit of The Fight - including comments from Donnie, Cale and Bobby and the MRN radio call by Barney Hall, Mike Joy, and Eli Gold.

Joe Biddle, who wrote the following article, grew up in east Tennessee. After his stint with the Daytona paper, he moved back to the Volunteer State to cover sports in middle Tennessee for the Nashville Banner and The Tennessean. In an e-mail exchange with Biddle, he acknowledged he hadn't covered NASCAR much and was a bit out of his element. But he submitted a great article with several great quips - from the drivers and himself - seldom included in articles today such as:
  • Biddle: Down the backstretch they charged. Time to intimidate. No room for error.
  • Biddle: ...the force richocheting them pell mell to the infield grass...
  • Cale: He smarted off, and I knocked the hell out of him.
  • Gary Balough: It felt really good out there. I was Cadillacing out there.
The coincidence of the issue number of the Daytona Beach Morning Journal's paper the day after the race wasn't lost on me - number 43.

Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal, February 19, 1979

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