The 1970s: NASCAR overcomes an early recession

Photo courtesy of ISC Images & Archives/Getty Images.

As NASCAR entered the ’70s, few could have predicted the major culture shifts that would soon change the sport forever. A number of key moves – and one major moment – highlighted the decade, all of which provided much needed stability and longevity to the sport for years to come.

Most notably, the addition of Winston as the series sponsor in 1971, Bill France Sr. stepping down and turning the reins over to his son, Bill Jr., in 1972, and the addition of live television coverage of the sport in 1970, were all critical factors in propelling stock car racing into the modern era and ultimately to new heights from which the sport had never seen.

Winston, with their creative marketing strategy (Winston Million in the ‘80s and ‘90s) and influx of promotional dollars ($100,000 points fund in 1972), helped usher the sport to a bigger fan base outside the Southeast region. With the assistance of live telecasts throughout the decade, the NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National Series was becoming a must-see sport around the country.

“Through the visionary leadership of Bill France Sr., and Bill France Jr., NASCAR experienced unprecedented growth during the 1970s,” said Kerry Tharp, President of Darlington Raceway. “Their ability to bring in national sponsors and television coverage allowed the sport to explode onto the American sports scene.”

As the push for more popularity was being made throughout the ‘70s, the decade ended with arguably the most important race in the history of NASCAR.

After negotiating with CBS to broadcast the entire 1979 Daytona 500 live flag-to-flag, NASCAR was the benefactor of a perfect storm for the second race of the season.

With a snowstorm blanketing most of the East coast, giving the race a captive television audience, the 1979 Daytona 500 was a spectacular event. Although Richard Petty snapped a 45-race winless streak that day, it was the fight between South Carolina’s own Cale Yarborough, and the Allison brothers Donnie and Bobby, that stole the ratings that day.

After battling throughout the day, Donnie Allison and Yarborough took the white flag with a half-lap lead on the rest of the field. After heavy contact on the final lap, both drivers found themselves wrecked and settled at the bottom of the track. With Bobby Allison pulling up soon after to check on his brother, the three proceeded to fight on live national television, generating some of the highest TV ratings in the sport’s history. Nearly 16 million viewers tuned into the telecast, which ultimately drew a 10.5 national rating.

The race was considered one of the most important in NASCAR history due to the fact that it got millions of viewers excited about stock car racing and generated a buzz around the country that got people talking about the sport.

Maybe just as important, 1979 was also the first full-time season for rookie Dale Earnhardt, who finished eighth in the Daytona 500 that year, won his first Cup race at Bristol, and earned Rookie of the Year honors that season despite missing four races with a broken collarbone.

He was one of many legendary drivers who began their careers in the ‘70s, including Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte and Harry Gant, among others.

Janet Guthrie was also introduced to stock car fans in the 1970s when she competed from 1976-1980 in the Cup Series. She was the first woman to start a Daytona 500 in 1977 and finished 12th in the race after starting 39th.

Author: Rachel Howell

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