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How NASCAR changed 30 years ago
by Mike Neff
Generally speaking, everyone points to the 1979 Daytona 500 as the seminal point in the evolution of NASCAR as a sport of the masses. The famous end to that race, when Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed on the final lap, only to brawl afterward (along with Donnie’s brother, Bobby) forever etched the sport into the fabric of America.
Most current fans don’t realize that the ’79 race was not the first race covered flag-to-flag, though. That distinction falls to a 200-lap race held at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in 1971. However, the race that very well could be more important than either of those is the 1981 spring race from Rockingham, which was the first broadcast by ESPN. While that race was not shown live, it was the first one carried on what today is self-glossed as the “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” and laid the foundation from which all modern television broadcasts are based.
Bob Jenkins was the play-by-play announcer along with legendary radio broadcaster Eli Gold. Interestingly, Gold replaced longtime radio voice Barney Hall, who decided to back out of the broadcast at the last minute. Along with Jenkins and Gold, Ned Jarrett was patrolling the pits for the fledgling sports network and expanding his already established broadcasting career, which ultimately played a factor in his election to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The race itself included some compelling storylines from several of the biggest names in the sport. Cale Yarborough dominated the race early, leading the most laps before slipping at the end to finish second. Richard Petty looked to have the race in hand, but needed to stretch his fuel to the finish. When Petty’s tank ran low with just three laps to go, he was forced to pit and ultimately came home in third place. Darrell Waltrip capitalized on Petty’s misfortune to snare his second victory in a row and one of 12 race wins en route to his first Winston Cup title.
That first broadcast on ESPN set the stage for all of the innovations that would come in race broadcasting, most of which evolved from the network itself. Thursday Night Thunder brought us the first in-track camera decades before “Digger” came to FOX. While CBS installed the first in-car cameras, which at the time were the size of a small child, it was ESPN that implemented high-definition cameras that are utilized for every angle from the over-the-wall crew cams to the main cameras shooting the races. In-car communications, race line-up scrolls, draft track and telemetry have all been advancements in the technology that brings the race experience to the fans — and it all started from those ESPN broadcasts of the ’80s.
When today’s race fans turn on the weekend show they expect to know exactly how many laps are completed, who is on the lead lap, how far behind the leader their favorite driver is running, along with myriad other statistics. When the folks at ESPN broadcast that race in 1981, they were just figuring out how to post the top 5 names on the screen when the broadcast went to break. There were many times in those first years of coverage that the announcers were not even sure who was leading a race.
During the infamous North Wilkesboro race in 1990, NASCAR scoring was still a manual system, and a miscue by the race director caused the pace car to pick up Dale Earnhardt instead of Brett Bodine as the leader of the race during a caution period. Bodine was able to get fresh tires before NASCAR realized its mistake and the tire change gave Bodine the advantage to win his only Cup race. Now live timing and scoring is fed directly into the race broadcast thanks to the efforts of all of the different broadcast partners of NASCAR.
Obviously, modern technology has made more information available to race fans both on their own and through the television broadcasts. The television partners of NASCAR have made many notable advancements in production in their efforts to try and bring better products to the viewing audience. And every one of those advancements is a direct result of the initial seeds that were planted in Rockingham on a chilly March weekend in 1981 by the pioneers at ESPN.