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Innovation key to NASCAR success

Nearly 30 years ago – on Feb. 18, 1979, to be exact – Richard Petty won the Daytona 500 while three other drivers were slugging it out over in the third turn.

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Nearly 30 years ago – on Feb. 18, 1979, to be exact – Richard Petty won the Daytona 500 while three other drivers were slugging it out over in the third turn.

I was in Fort Myers that day and had to listen to the race on the radio because the TV broadcast was blacked out in Florida. But I can remember it like it was yesterday:

“The checkered flag is out for Richard Petty,” the radio announcer said, “but there’s a commotion over in Turn 3. Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison are out of their cars (they’d just crashed together) … they appear to be arguing … they’re having words … Bobby Allison has stopped his car and is getting out … AND THERE’S A FIGHT, THERE’S A FIGHT … THE ALLISONS SEEM TO HAVE JUMPED ON YARBOROUGH, EVERYBODY’S SWINGING HELMETS AND FISTS … ”

It went on from there, but to this day, historians and sociologists and pontificators point to that slugfest as the moment – the point in time – when NASCAR caught the attention of mainstream America.

What had been a southeastern U.S. regional racing series suddenly started down the road that would make it the No. 1 racing series in North America and No. 2 in the world. All because of a couple of punches in the mouth, the experts say.

Now, I don’t happen to agree with that. If a fight was all it took to put NASCAR on the map in the U.S., how come the National Hockey League isn’t more popular there?

There’s way more to it than that.

While it’s true that more people might have started tuning in to Daytona 500 telecasts because of the publicity that the Allisons-Yarborough dust-up generated, I’m convinced they all became hooked in 1984 when a smart TV director switched to an in-car camera at the exact moment when eventual winner Yarborough passed Darrell Waltrip for the lead going into Turn 3 on the last lap.

Just as Yarborough went low on the backstretch to make the pass, the TV camera inside the car came on and swung around to show Waltrip’s car being passed and then falling behind.

“Country rides with Cale to Daytona victory,” said one headline the next day.

So television sophistication contributed hugely to NASCAR’s popularity and this advantage continues to this day. Cameras are literally everywhere at NASCAR races, inside the cars and out, and they twist and turn and look forward and backward and sideways and – as has been the case ever since that fateful pass back in 1984 – you (and millions of others) can sit in the comfort of your living room and be “in” the car with the driver.

You can make daring passes, you can leave people in your dust and, best of all, you can crash and not get hurt. You can go right into a wall at 290 kilometres an hour and not feel a thing.

And it gets better: While the safety crew is out on the speedway cleaning up the mess after your crash, you can go to the refrigerator or the bathroom and be back in the “cockpit” in time for the green-flag restart.

No other sport – not even any other racing series – has used TV the way NASCAR has. I mean, they’ll even put a camera in the helmet of a crew member and you, the viewer, can change the tires on Jimmy Johnson’s car when he comes ripping in for a pit stop.

Why can’t they do that with a baseball catcher? Televised baseball is as static as it was when I was a black-and-white-TV kid in the ’50s and they used to flash, “Hey Mabel, Black Label!” on the screen after a guy hit a home run.

Hockey? Same thing. Yes, they have cameras in the net and overhead in the rafters these days, but the only time they use them is for replays. I mean, turn them on in real time. And while we’re at it, how about one in the goalie’s mask or in the helmets of the forwards?

The technology is there; all that’s lacking in these other sports is imagination – which NASCAR has in spades.

I can hardly wait till tomorrow, when I can ride “with” Mark Martin and maybe win the Daytona 500.

Don’t count Waltrip out

Conventional wisdom has it that one of the Rick Hendrick stable of drivers – Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon or Mark Martin – will win tomorrow’s “Great American Race.”

But how about two-time winner Michael Waltrip?

Ryan Coniam, son of Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame inductee Warren Coniam of Burlington, thinks his boss has a real shot.

“I’ve seen the printouts (of test sessions),” Coniam said in a telephone interview this week. “He’s happy with the car and, remember, Michael’s probably one of the best restrictor plate racers in the garage. He was taught by the same guy (Dale Earnhardt) as the 88 driver (Dale Earnhardt Jr., who’s also seen as a restrictor-plate specialist).”

Young Coniam, a former All-Star Circuit of Champions and World of Outlaws sprint car star who also has pavement experience, has been working in NASCAR for the past year. He signed on originally with Bill David Racing to engineer Jacques Villeneuve’s car, but when Villeneuve’s Sprint Cup career turned sour, Coniam took his talents to Waltrip’s team.

Since then, although employed by Waltrip, he’s been assigned to Germain Racing, where he’s helping prepare road racer Max Papis for a career in the Sprint Cup series behind the wheel of the No. 13 GEICO Toyota Camry.

Papis will make his Cup debut in two weeks at Las Vegas. He’ll first get his feet wet next week in the Camping World Series truck race in California.

“Max has lots of talent and lots of passion,” Coniam said. “He’s very driven. We’ll have to see how he adapts (to the big stock cars as compared to the lighter and nimbler Indy cars and sports cars he’s raced previously).

Coniam said he advised Papis to skip Daytona.

“With all the `go-or-go-homers’ there this year (17 cars trying for four starting spots), I didn’t think it would be wise the throw him into that mix. He’s a rookie and an `outsider,’ so nobody would be giving him any help, nobody would be doing him any favours.

“There’s definitely not going to be 57 cars (the Daytona entry) showing up to race in a few weeks so that will be a better environment for him to show us what he can do.”

So who, other than Waltrip, does he think will win tomorrow?

“You know, there’s 20 cars that could win,” Coniam said.

“I expect it will come down to the last five laps. I’m assuming there’s going to be a crash in the last five to 10 laps, so that will set up a dash to the finish. Ryan Newman picked the right lane last year and won.

“It’s whoever picks the right lane. You pick the right lane and you can win the Daytona 500.”

Norris McDonald writes about motorsport each week in Wheels. nmcdonald@thestar.ca

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