February 18, 1979. Notionally the focus should have been on Richard Petty as he extended his Daytona 500 victory tally to six in the first full NASCAR race broadcast live on TV, but there was an alternative headline. Petty won because Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed while disputing the lead on the final lap – and a brawl ensued after their crumpled cars came to a halt on the infield. Bobby Allison was involved, too – and he’d only stopped to offer his younger brother a lift back to the pits. “I think it made a lot of fans for the sport,” Yarborough said years later. “It got people’s attention. I think it’s one of the best things that ever happened.”
That spur-of-the-moment conflict shifted NASCAR from the sports section of newspapers to the front, but motor racing has always thrived on the attention bred by rivalries that become toxic, whether spontaneously – as in the instance above – or more durably, such as the feud between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, which began when they were team-mates at McLaren but continued until the Frenchman retired several seasons later. The triggers can be manifold – on-track or personality clashes, competitive pressures, throwaway comments that are purposely provocative or else misconstrued, perceived injustices – but the outcome is invariably effervescent.
Tempers flared after this crash between Donnie Allison (No1) and Cale Yarborough on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 1979 – live on TV. NASCAR became headline news