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NASCAR's Perfect Storm
Written February 16, 2015

 

Four decades ago, my father often had to clear the driveway with his snow blower.

Even after he retired from his business in 1973, winter stubbornly remained in operation.  Now, however, he didn’t have to stay in Ohio year-round.  He had the option of escaping the cold.

Many other retirees in our small town joined the local grain farmers in going south for the winter.  My parents decided to do likewise, but not for the whole winter, just for a week beginning in February 1974.  Eventually they lengthened these annual vacations to a month.  (That may have been too long for my mother.  About the fourth week, she’d see airliners taking off and remark wistfully, “There are some more people going home.”)

Unlike most of their neighbors, my parents didn’t go to Florida.  They chose Arizona instead.  They rented one of the two dozen guest suites at the eight-year-old Smoke Tree Resort in Scottsdale.

For five of those winters, 1976 through 1980, I took a week off from my job in Pennsylvania and joined them.  3D pictures are here.

In 1979, John Chancellor and other newscasters were telling us of blizzards back east, but we weren't there.  We also learned that the Daytona 500 stock car race would, for the first time in history, be televised in its entirety during the week I was going to be in Arizona.

Daytona, you say?  Our family had visited Florida's Daytona Beach a number of times on summer vacations from 1955 to 1973 (at right).  My father enjoyed being able to drive our car on the hard-packed sand. 

Fifteen land speed records had been set on this smooth but treacherous surface.

There used to be a road course for auto races:  two miles south on paved Route A1A and then two miles north on the beach.  Stock cars competed here until the Daytona International Speedway and NASCAR’s Daytona 500 were inaugurated in 1959.

My father and I had seen portions of the 500 on TV, but there had never been live flag-to-flag coverage.  So, despite fine weather outside, we hunkered down in our Scottsdale suite and tuned in CBS-TV at 10:00 Mountain Time on Sunday morning, February 18.  The race began at 11:00 and lasted until 3:00 in the afternoon.  My father and I stayed glued to the screen the whole time, to my mother’s amusement.     

A week before televising the 2015 race, Fox Sports recalled the famous 1979 event in a one-hour documentary.  That's the source of some of these pictures.

The 1979 telecast included coverage from a blimp and a novel in-car camera.

On the final backstretch, a crash between the two leaders allowed Richard Petty to come around and win.  Then the two good ol’ boys who had crashed got out of their wrecked cars and into a fistfight.  There was great excitement.  The event brought many new fans to NASCAR ...

... especially viewers in snowbound regions outside the sport’s traditional Southern fan base.  As the Fox documentary pointed out, there were basically only two other TV channels to choose from.

Dick Berggren, who had been part of the radio broadcast crew, said, "Nobody knew it then, but that was the race that got everything going.  It was the first 'water cooler' race, the first time people had stood around water coolers on Monday and talked about seeing a race on TV the day before.”

And within a decade, as NASCAR boomed in popularity, I myself became part of several of these telecasts!  Elsewhere on this website, I listed five races I worked in 1990. 

“For TBS, I was at Richmond in February and September, and at Charlotte in May and October, along with font coordinator Pat Perrin, fellow graphics operators Abby Smith and Don Thompson, and announcers like Mike Joy and Chris Economaki.   In July on SportsChannel America, I worked another NASCAR race at the new track in New Hampshire.

Nowadays, interest in NASCAR has been declining for several years.  Maybe if the current blizzardy conditions continue through this Sunday (February 22, 2015), viewers will watch another exciting “Great American Race” like 1979 in sufficient numbers to turn things around again.

 

TBT

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