NASCAR will be first sport to return from Covid-19 break and organisers might want another fist fight

Motorsport will have a captive audience when it gets underway on 17 May, similar to the famous Daytona 500 in 1979

Darlington Raceway in South Carolina will host the first NASCAR event when the sport resumes on 17 May, with seven races in ten days. Picture: Jared C Tilton/Getty Images
Darlington Raceway in South Carolina will host the first NASCAR event when the sport resumes on 17 May, with seven races in ten days. Picture: Jared C Tilton/Getty Images

There’s no live sport and our television channels are being filled with “greatest ever” moments but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

The first sport set to return in a post-Covid-19 United States will be NASCAR. And it is a dream 
window of opportunity for them – a wide-open sports landscape in a world desperate for any live event.

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The TV networks scrambled for the rights of a sport which is ranked below wrestling and just above badminton in TV ratings, and on 17 May NASCAR returns with seven events in ten days. The first is at Darlington Raceway.

It’s not the first time that America’s premier motorsport has used the absence of other sport to its advantage. And if the last time is anything to go by then the world may be about to fall in love with a sport that, to outsiders, appears to be just racing in circles.

On 18 February 1979 the Daytona 500 took place in unprecedented circumstances. The Presidents Day Snowstorm swept through the North East and Mid-West states that day. The snowstorm stopped all other activities and left the door open for the first-ever live flag-to-flag 500-mile race.

Up to that point, it was normal for TV companies to show the event on delay or only the last quarter of the race, but with no other sport to turn to, CBS gave the world all 500 laps.

It didn’t disappoint.

The race dubbed “The most important in NASCAR history” only happened because TV network CBS pushed so hard for the event to go ahead after torrential downpours overnight and ended with one of the most iconic back-stretch battles in racing history.

Heading into the race, the focus was on the fight between the leaders of the week’s qualifying, brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison, Buddy Baker and Cale Yarborough.

With the race properly underway after 15 laps under caution, the battle began.

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On lap 30 the front three of the Allison Brothers and Yarborough were bumper to bumper. Bobby Allison slipped and connected with his brother, causing them both to spin on to the grass. In an evasive manoeuvre, Yarborough also ended up in the grass.

In a typical race this wouldn’t normally have been a problem but after the weekend’s rainfall, all three were stuck in the mud and needed assistance from the track staff to get back on the 
circuit. When they returned, all three were a lap behind the field, leaving Baker free.

But then engine trouble and a technician’s mistake meant Baker had to retire before the quarter-way point.

That allowed Dale Earnhardt to take the lead. The rookie was little
known at this point but would later go on to be one of the all-time greats in NASCAR and a name 
synonymous with winning in 
motorsport.

As the race progressed so did Yarborough and Donnie Allison, dragging themselves back into the race and then against all the odds back into the lead.

Donnie Allison and Yarborough battled it out in the first two positions, leaving the rest of the field in their rear-view mirrors. On the last lap, Yarborough saw his chance to slip down the inside, but as Donnie straightened up the two connected.

As Yarborough touched the grass, he moved back into the side of Allison and the two slid back and forth across the track until they hit the wall and spun-off to the grass. The clash ended both their races with the finish line in sight.

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At this point, Richard Petty, a five-time winner with little expectation of winning that day due to an injury-ravaged two years, became the race leader and collected his sixth Daytona 500 title.

That wasn’t even the most dramatic moment. Back where the collision happened, a fist fight broke out between Donnie Allison and Yarborough.

Under the gaze of NASCARs biggest ever viewership, the two of the stars of the time ended up swinging fists and helmets, but also sent their sport into the stratosphere.

In a couple of weeks, with the resumption of sport and a 
NASCAR series to be shown on live TV, I’m sure the organisation will be hoping for a similar race, 
maybe even a fist fight to put the sport back at the forefront of the American media psyche.

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