Squier’s Legendary Daytona 500 Call
by Tom Jensen December 16, 2020
Hall of Famer Ken Squier first sold CBS on broadcasting the 1979 Daytona 500 live; then he delivered a call for the ages
The most famous call of any stock car race came the first time a 500-mile race was aired live, flag-to-flag, on national television.
The date was Feb. 18, 1979, and the race was the Daytona 500. NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough (2012) and Donnie Allison were vying for victory, and the voice heard round the airwaves was that of Kenley Dean “Ken” Squier (2018), the very same man who coined the nickname “The Great American Race” for NASCAR’s biggest event.
Squier’s final 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?”
The two leaders out of the running, Richard Petty (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, Bobby Allison (2011), who stopped his car on the infield to check on his older brother. Squier jumped right in, not missing a beat. “And there’s a fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison!” he said. “The tempers, overflowing. They are angry. They know they have lost. And what a bitter defeat.”
And there’s a fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison! The tempers, overflowing. They are angry. They know they have lost. And what a bitter defeat.
— Ken Squier
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 (2010), the sport’s founder, and his son William C. “Bill Jr.” France (2010).
“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' 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.”
Getting the 1979 Daytona 500 on network television was a huge breakthrough. 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.
CBS was a hard sell. And Big Bill 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 his crowd 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.
Once the race rolled around, weather played a huge role. 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., though 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.
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.
“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.”
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
“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 Darrell Waltrip (2012), 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.”