In '79, new pavement was a sideshow

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When last the Daytona 500 was run on new pavement, it was a time of tougher men in cruder cars, beating on each other with fenders and fists.

So much else went on that Speedweeks of 1979, so much more compelling, seizing the nation's attention for NASCAR for the first time and for a long time, that there was little talk of asphalt.

And so some of us who were here, then, have been amused and a little amazed that every press conference and virtually every individual interview has included some form of the word "pavement."

In '79, "It wasn't an issue," remembered Bobby Allison, a star of the postrace show, known ever since as The Fight.

"I don't remember coming here on new pavement," said David Pearson, who was here, all right, but has reason to forget.

At most, the new pavement was "another part of the drum roll for the '79 500," said Ken Squier, who anchored that first live flag-to-flag coverage on CBS, and is now a commentator for Speed Channel.

"That's when they were talking about going 'past fast,' and [Buddy] Baker was going around with the 200 mph talk," Squier continued. The previous Sunday, "He had won that first Busch Clash [now the Bud Shootout] at an average speed of 194, and people were wondering if he could crack 200" that week or in the race.

Other than the pavement playing a small part in the speed, "I don't remember it being a big story," said Ned Jarrett, part of that original CBS broadcast team. "Just another racetrack being paved again."

All of Daytona International Speedway was electrified figuratively and literally with all the equipment CBS was rolling in for the milestone coverage. Curiously, young director Bob Fishman and producer Mike Pearl were setting cameras at low angles on the retaining walls. These would yield the first "speed shots," showing the cars coming by like bullets.

Fishman and Pearl brought something they called an in-car camera, but "It was as big as a bread box and it was too heavy, and really upset the roll center of the car," Squier recalled. "So that didn't work out."

A long-haired, mustachioed rookie off the short tracks of the Carolinas showed up, known only by who his father had been.

"Earnhardt then wasn't a big story," Squier said. "He was a newcomer."

But down in the garage area, some of us in the print media had gravitated quickly toward the cocky son of the late Ralph Earnhardt -- that was about all we knew of Dale Earnhardt.

What struck us was his absolute self confidence, as if he owned the place and was plenty good enough, right out of the gate, to run with the likes of A.J. Foyt in his qualifying race -- which he did.

On Saturday, CBS ran a dress rehearsal with the 300-miler for what were then called Late Model Sportsman cars, later Busch, now Nationwide.

A cloud of flame rose several stories high over the backstretch as Joe Frasson's car exploded in a massive pileup. Frasson incredibly crawled through a window to safety with only minor burns.

But the CBS cameras focused on another car in the melee, and the monitors kept flashing "09 Don Williams xxxx 09 Don Williams xxxx 09 Don Williams."

The little-known driver from Madison, Fla., would remain in a coma for more than a decade before he died.

Photographs of the Daytona fire cloud ran nationwide in newspapers and on newscasts, to a public that was snowed in, all the way down to Georgia, that weekend.

The stage was set for enormous drama come Sunday. But it rained that morning, and the first live telecast was threatened with the first-ever Daytona 500 rainout.

But the rain stopped just in time, and young Darrell Waltrip was sent out by NASCAR to run the banking at high speed to make sure it was dry enough to race. When he came in, his spark plugs were fouled, and CBS's first live interview sticking a microphone through the window was met with vehement rebuffs from the fiery Jaws.

Here's why Pearson has no cause to remember that day: He wrecked early in a sort of "big one" of the time, along with both Allisons, Bobby and Donnie, and Cale Yarborough.

The infield off the backstretch was a quagmire, and most who went off got stuck in the mud, losing several laps each.

"But they began to make them up," Squier said. "And that added to the drama."

Donnie Allison regained the lead and kept it for laps upon laps upon laps, with the newcomer Earnhardt hanging onto his bumper in the draft, in second place.

Little noted nor long remembered is that Earnhardt, as a rookie, would have been a part of that fateful mix at the end of the race had he not been too hard on and off the throttle, gotten bad fuel mileage and had to pit for gas just before the end.

The rest of that day, of course, is a monument in NASCAR history. Television ratings soared into double digits as a snowed-in nation, with nothing better to do, grew mesmerized with the goings-on from warm Daytona.

Gunning for the win, Yarborough got two wheels off on the apron, dangerously close to the mud, trying to pass Donnie Allison. They wrecked each other, leaving Foyt, Richard Petty and Waltrip to scramble for the win.

Foyt would have won, except that he lifted when he saw the caution light flashing, as Indy car drivers were conditioned to do under their rules forbidding racing back to caution.

Petty and Waltrip floored their throttles and kept at it, and the revered King outdueled the brash new talent for the sixth of Petty's seven career Daytona 500 wins.

Bobby Allison took the checkered flag in 11th place, then drove around to the back stretch.

"I stopped to ask Donnie if he wanted a ride," Bobby said. "He waved me on, like, 'Nah!'"

Yarborough, who like Donnie thought that Bobby had caused the earlier big wreck, ran over and popped Bobby in the face with his helmet.

"Drops of blood, down my uniform, in my lap," Bobby gestured on his street clothes the other day. "I knew I had to take care of it right then."

He climbed out and The Fight ensued, really between Yarborough and Bobby. Donnie never threw a punch, although he looks bad, like he's swinging a helmet, in all the historic pictures.

Actually he was just gesturing: "I was saying, 'You want to fight with a helmet? I got a helmet!'" Donnie once told me.

Bill France Jr. later would say that race did for NASCAR what the 1958 sudden-death championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants had done for the NFL.

It was NASCAR's breakthrough to the American public.

But the history was made as much in the muddy grass as on that new pavement.

And now, 32 years later, the asphalt is the story of the 53rd Daytona 500. It has affected the racing enormously, as the drivers hook up in pairs and shove each other all the way around the track.

In recent years, the bump drafting was a clunky proposition. They bumped on the straights, got off each other in the turns lest they wreck, lost much momentum through the corners and had to regain it before they could bump again on the next straightaway.

Now the corners have tremendous grip and are extremely smooth, no more bumps. Scientifically, construction crews dug out all of the old pavement, both layers from before, and put the new asphalt down on the original bed of the speedway.

In '79 Daytona officials had simply put the new asphalt down on the old.

"They left the bumps in it," Jarrett remembered. And leave it to NASCAR's great gentleman, great mediator, to give these separate times in NASCAR their due.

Then, "It didn't change the character of the racetrack," Jarrett said. "They've changed the character of the racetrack now."

Yet it's hard to imagine those tougher men in cruder cars, beating on each other with fenders and fists, in the NASCAR the public still longs for, fretting much about asphalt, however it was laid.

There was just too much else going on.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.