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TV special focuses on NASCAR fight that was sport’s turning point

In NASCAR’s rich lore, a singular afternoon in 1979 plucked the sport from the ranks of the also-rans to prominence on the national scene.

It came in the third turn of the last lap at the Daytona 500 when Donnie Allison got in a sheet-metal-banging duel with Cale Yarborough for the finish. They both spun into the apron in their wrecked cars as Richard Petty roared by to win.

Allison and Yarborough started boxing and driver Bobby Allison dove in to his brother’s defense.

It was a day of firsts, and the fight wasn’t one of them. It was the first time the Daytona 500 had been televised in its entirety, and it harvested a record rating.

“And there’s a fight … between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison!” cried CBS race host Ken Squier, who gave Daytona the nickname of “The Great American Race.”

“Tempers overflowing; they’re angry; they know they have lost, and what a bitter defeat.”

And what a sweet victory for the sport.

By coincidence, a huge storm had paralyzed the populous Northeast and Bill France Jr., NASCAR’s president, had coincidentally lifted the telecast’s traditional blackout in the South. CBS had a huge audience for the 500, once considered a poor television bet because the race went on so long.

But Squier knew people would watch, and the day’s accidents, capped by a middle-weight bout, made the 500 a staple on CBS for more than a decade and elevated Southern-centric NASCAR to a new national audience it had never courted.

NASCAR had scored its buzz.

Fox Sports 1’s “The Perfect Storm” on Friday is an hour-long documentary that taps the memories of many of the still-living participants in the historic race.

Mike Joy, now a play-by-play announcer for Fox, was covering Turn 2 for Concord-based Motor Racing Network that day and provides one of the memories in the special.

“In its first live telecast of the Daytona 500, CBS got a good race, a thrilling, crashing finish and a post-race brawl in front of a huge, mostly snowbound TV audience,” he says. “NASCAR couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

Squier, who co-founded Motor Racing Network in 1969 and called races for more than three decades, is one of the sport’s foremost broadcast figures.

“Without being too wordy, he made these drivers into larger-than-life heroes,” Joy says. “As he often said, they were ‘common men doing uncommon deeds.’ Ken gave the event and its aftermath such a tone of great importance and excitement. His call left no doubt that this was the biggest thing ever to happen to stock car racing, and that stock car racing had, that day, become a very big thing.”

Other voices in the special include longtime Charlotte Observer race writer Tom Higgins, Yarborough and the Allison brothers, Richard Petty, CBS analyst David Hobbs, MRN reporter Jack Arute, then-president Jimmy Carter and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who saw the race as a spectator.

Following the special is another produced by NASCAR Productions, “1979 Daytona 500,” (8:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1) hosted by Earnhardt Jr., which features a 30-minute version of the race studded with pop-up video inserts.