Ken Squier and the 1979 Daytona 500
by Tom Jensen April 19, 2023
NASCAR Hall of Fame announcer Ken Squier helped bring CBS to the table for the first live, flag-to-flag Daytona 500 broadcast in 1979.
As we continue to celebrate NASCAR’s 75th anniversary, we look back on one of the single most important races in the sport’s history. The date was February 18, 1979, and the race was the Daytona 500.
No one knew it when the sun rose that morning, but by the end of the day, NASCAR would explode onto the national scene in a way it never had before, aided greatly by a Vermont radio station owner who made what might be the most famous last-lap call in all of stock-car racing history.
On that date, CBS television broadcast the Daytona 500 live. It was the first 500-mile NASCAR event to be broadcast live, flag-to-flag on national television.
On the final lap of the race, NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough (2012) and Donnie Allison (2024) were vying for victory, a battle brilliantly narrated on CBS by Kenley Dean “Ken” Squier (Class of 2018), the very same man who coined the nickname “The Great American Race” for the Daytona 500.
Squier’s last-lap call was legendary: “Out of Turn 2, Donnie Allison in first. Where will Cale make his move? He comes to the inside. Donnie Allison throws the block. Cale hits him! He slides! Donnie Allison slides! They hit again! They drive up the turn! They’re hitting the wall! They’re head-on into the wall. They slide down to the inside. Let’s watch for the third-place car. They’re out of it. Who’s going to win it?”
They’re out of it. Who’s going to win it?
— Ken Squier
With the two leaders out of the running, Richard Petty (Class of 2010) took the checkered flag to win his sixth of seven Daytona 500s. But the show wasn’t over just yet. The cameras cut to the infield where Yarborough was brawling with Donnie Allison and, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison (2011), who stopped his car on the infield to check on his brother. Squier jumped right in, not missing a beat. “And there’s a fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison!” Squier said. “The tempers, overflowing. They are angry. They know they have lost. And what a bitter defeat.”
A recreation of Donnie Allison’s 1979 Daytona 500 Oldsmobile is part of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s newest Great Hall exhibit, “NASCAR 75: Moments and Memories,” which honors the history and the heritage of the sport and the heroes and legends who made it happen.
And while the history books are dominated by racers, Squier made major contributions to NASCAR of his own.
Squier’s clear voice and his unerring ability to convey drama earned him a prestigious place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. In 2013, the Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence was established. Named for Squier and radio announcer Barney Hall, the two were the first recipients of the award.
Without question, Squier’s reach extended far beyond his work behind the microphone. Without Squier, there would have been no live flag-to-flag coverage of the 1979 Daytona 500. He was the one who forged the deal between CBS and NASCAR, which at the time was led by William H. G. “Big Bill” France (Class of 2010), the sport’s founder, and his son William C. “Bill Jr.” France (Class of 2010).
Striking a deal with CBS to televise all 500 miles live from Daytona was no easy task in the late 1970s. CBS executives—“city folks,” Squier called them—were dubious about whether auto racing would translate on the small screen. “They didn’t get it,” Squier said.
So to help sell the sport, Squier took fellow Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip (2012), then an enthusiastic young driver, to talk up NASCAR to uncertain CBS officials. “He (Squier) needed somebody to go with him, promote the sport, tell people how great the sport was, what the potential of it could be, what he saw in doing the Daytona 500 live flag to flag,” Waltrip said. “And the excitement I had for the race and the passion that I had for the sport. We just tied ourselves together, went to a meeting with all the affiliates, told them what the plan was, what we thought would work, what it would look like and how exciting it was going to be.”
We just tied ourselves together, went to a meeting with all the affiliates, told them what the plan was, what we thought would work, what it would look like and how exciting it was going to be.
— Darrell Waltrip
Still, CBS was a hard sell. And France was a stickler, too. In those days, promoters lived and died with the live crowd, and France was concerned broadcasting the 1979 Daytona 500 live could hurt attendance at Daytona International Speedway, so he insisted on a five-state blackout of TV coverage. After protracted negotiations, a deal was struck. To celebrate, France took CBS executive Neal Pilson out to dinner—at the Daytona Beach Steak ‘n Shake.
“Bill said, ‘I’ll pick up the tab,’” Pilson told FOX Sports in a documentary about the race. “In my recollection it was $6.73.” On May 16, 1978, CBS announced that it would broadcast the race live for the first time in 1979. Squier was to be the play-by-play man, paired with English race car driver David Hobbs. Also on board for the live broadcast were respected automotive journalist Brock Yates, two-time NASCAR champion Ned Jarrett (Class of 2011) and actress Marianne Bunch.
Once the race rolled around, weather played a huge factor. It was raining at Daytona on the morning of the race, but the CBS contract stipulated the race had to start at 1 p.m. In those days, the track didn’t have jet dryers, let alone a fleet of Air Titans, but the rain miraculously stopped and the race began at 1 p.m. The first 15 laps were run with the green and yellow flags, which were both displayed until the track was dry enough to race for real.
Up north, weather was an even bigger factor. A savage blizzard on the East Coast had left millions snowed in, many of whom were watching the Daytona 500 and getting their first exposure to NASCAR and stock car racing. In that era, most markets had only the three major television networks—ABC, CBS and NBC—and maybe one or two local ultra high frequency (UHF) stations. With no internet cable tv, streaming or cell phones to pull them away, NASCAR fans and the curious alike tuned to the race broadcast, which was witnessed by an estimated 15 million viewers. France, encouraged by the huge live crowd, decided at the last minute to scale back the TV blackout to Florida only.
Once the racing began, the drama happened quickly.
On Lap 31, Yarborough and both Allison brothers brought out a yellow flag after they made contact on the backstretch and spun into the muddy infield. But all were able to continue despite falling off the lead lap. And they made their way back to the front, setting up Squier’s famous call of the finish.
“[Daytona] was the single place where you could emphasize what this game meant and that game all day—when Cale and Donnie went a couple of laps down at the beginning, they never stopped,” Squier said. “They worked themselves all day and got back to the lead lap. There they were at the end.”
And then, of course, came the fight that made NASCAR famous as Yarborough and both Allison brothers brawled in Turn 3 after the race had concluded.
“At the end, what seemed to be a bad moment when there was a slight altercation up in Turn 3 was an exclamation point to what this was all about,” Squier said. “These people cared that much to put their lives on the line caring so much. And when it was over, they were frustrated. It just boiled over. It just supported the fact that everything people had witnessed that day in that incredible race.”
“It turned out to be one of the best Daytona 500s we’ve ever seen with so many people running up front, leading the race,” said Waltrip, who finished second to Petty. “It was an exciting day. And then to come down with a finish like we had, with the fight between Cale and Donnie, Richard Petty wins. That stuff. That’s TV history right there.”
It still is.
“If you ask people who have been around the sport even longer than we have to pick the top five most influential moments or bellwether moments or whatever you want to call them, I don’t know that anybody would not have the 1979 Daytona 500 on their list,” said NASCAR Hall of Fame Executive Director Winston Kelley. “They might put them in different order, but I don’t know anybody that’s followed the sport or studied the sport, dating back to 1948, that that would not be considered a top-five moment in the evolution of the sport and how much it impacted the history and future of NASCAR.”
What seemed to be a bad moment when there was a slight altercation up in Turn 3 was an exclamation point to what this was all about.
— Ken Squier
And it would have never happened without Squier, the Vermont radio station owner, getting CBS on board.
“Absent Ken Squier, it would have taken this sport probably another decade to find its way onto national television and radio,” said Mike Joy, who is the play-by-play announcer for FOX Sports in its coverage of NASCAR races. “With his knowledge of the business, his diplomacy and his deep relationships in the sport, there was nobody else who had that combination and the drive to try and propel their sport forward like he did.”
“He (Squier) put his reputation on the line. He used every ounce of influence and clout that he possibly could to (urge) those people at CBS to put a race on in its entirety, flag to flag, live,” said Dave Moody, the lead turn announcer for Motor Racing Network (MRN) and host of SIRIUSXM Speedway on SIRIUSXM NASCAR Radio. “It hadn’t been done. Nobody wanted to do it. Nobody was interested in doing it. Nobody was talking about doing it. And he pretty much single-handedly bulled it through.”