But sometimes tempers spill over to after the checkered flag has been waved. There’s been no shortage of verbal confrontations on pit row, trash talk during post-race interviews, and even physical fights after the engines turn off and the dust settles. Maybe the most famous post-race feud went down at the Daytona 500 in 1979, when a simple car race morphed into a wild wrestling match between NASCAR legends.
Richard Petty wins the 1979 Daytona 500
In the late 1970s, NASCAR hadn’t yet hit its peak. Car racing was popular among diehard fans and drivers themselves, but it wasn’t the national phenomenon it is today. That all changed at the 1979 Daytona 500.
The race marked the first 500-mile event in NASCAR history to be televised live from start to finish in America. CBS earned the chance to televise the race, and the network struck gold thanks to what happened on the track that day.
“Nobody knew it then, but that was the race that got everything going,” auto racing announcer Dick Berggren famously said about the race. “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. It took a while – years, maybe – to realize how important it was.”
Hall of Famer Richard Petty, who won a record 200 races in the NASCAR Cup Series and is heralded today as the greatest race car driver to ever live, narrowly beat Darrell Waltrip to the finish line to secure one of his seven career victories at the Daytona 500.
But Petty was hardly the biggest storyline that still stands out from the iconic race.
Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed out of the race while battling for the lead
Down the stretch of the 1979 Daytona 500, Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison took a half-lap lead over the rest of the field. It seemed like a two-car race going into the final lap.
Allison held a slim lead through the white flag, but he knew Yarborough was planning to make his final move at any moment. Down the backstretch, Yarborough attempted a sneaky pass to Allison’s inside, but Allison moved over in time to block the maneuver. Neither driver was willing to give up an inch.
In a desperate move, Yarborough tried to pass Allison with virtually no room on the inside, and the two cars got tangled up as a result. They skidded down the track side by side until Allison’s No. 11 collided with the outside wall and both cars spun to a stop on the infield grass.
Both drivers unsurprisingly maintained their innocence after the race.
“I was going to pass him and win the race, but he turned left and crashed me. So, hell, I crashed him back,” Yarborough said. “If I wasn’t going to get back around, he wasn’t either.”
“The track was mine until he hit me in the back,” Allison claimed. “He got me loose and sideways, so I came back to get what was mine. He wrecked me, I didn’t wreck him.”
Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers get down and dirty
The epic crash between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison is one of the most memorable wrecks in NASCAR history, but it’s what happened afterward that will live in racing infamy forever.
After Richard Petty crossed the finish line first to win the race, tempers started to flare between Yarborough and Allison. Allison’s brother, Bobby, even drove around to the site of the crash after finishing ninth to check on Donnie. That’s when the mayhem broke out.
An angry Yarborough started swinging his helmet at the Allison brothers in rage, and a wild wrestling match broke out on the infield grass. CBS cameras broadcasted the entire scrum on live television.
“I got closer to Donnie, and Cale started yelling at me that I had caused the wreck,” Bobby Allison said after the race. “I think I questioned his ancestry. He ran at me. He yelled at me some more. I probably questioned his ancestry some more. And then he surprised me by hitting me in the face with his helmet. He was always a stocky little prizefighter-type guy. Certainly, he didn’t want to take on Donnie, ’cause Donnie would have mopped the floor up with him.”
The 1979 Daytona 500 was later dubbed “The Famous Finish,” and it turned NASCAR into the wildly popular television event it is today.