DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Since 1979, CBS Sports has had its eye on the Daytona 500 and America has gone along for the ride.
The network was there when Donnie and Bobby Allison brawled with Cale Yarborough in the third turn. They were there when Dale Earnhardt cut a tire while leading less than a mile from the checkered flag. They put us in the driver's seat with Yarborough during two of his victories. They were close enough to Earnhardt's victory doughnuts in the infield grass that we smelled the grass as it rooster-tailed behind the car.
The long and wonderful ride started 22 years ago and it will end today. The first network to televise a stock car race live will walk away from the Daytona International Speedway with the same grace and professionalism it has displayed since that pivotal afternoon in 1979 when NASCAR jumped into the country's sports consciousness.
"Everything changes," said veteran play-by-play announcer Ken Squier, who has made the call on every one of CBS Sports' telecasts of the Great American Race. "If you love stock car racing, this is the race. Everybody at CBS has been wired to make this week's race as good as it was back in '79. This might be our last 500, but we're determined to make it our best."
CBS, ESPN, ABC and TNN lost in a bidding war last year to televise all NASCAR events starting in 2001. The fact that CBS was the first network to take a chance on stock car racing, or the fact that ESPN provided extended coverage of both the action and the personal side of the sport as it skyrocketed in popularity, mattered little during negotiations that wound up padding the sport's deep pockets with $2.8 billion for the next six years.
Through the current season, each race track on the NASCAR Winston Cup and Busch Series schedules was responsible for negotiating its own television package. Last year, NASCAR decided it would strike a deal on behalf of the entire circuit. The result was an increase in television revenues from $100 million a year to more than $400 million.
It will be up to NBC, TBS and Fox to continue the work in 2001. Until then, all three current networks vow to make the 2000 production year a hard act to follow.
Squier, the dean of motorsports play-by-play, has watched the sport evolve from its dusty Southern roots to mainstream America. The sport was always good enough to sell itself, but television provided a stage for the world to see.
"I think CBS did two things that revolutionized the sport," Squier said. "First, we were the first to broadcast a race live on network television. CBS gave us the opportunity to do the event, not exploit it, but to do it as a meaningful event. They gave us all the time and the people necessary to make it happen.
"Then in 1983, we introduced the in-car camera. We put the average race fan in the driver's seat. They got a sense for speed, a sense of how close the traffic was. Until 1983, cars didn't look that fast on a 19-inch television screen. All of a sudden you're behind the wheel and you learned these cars drive like a sailboat going 200 mph. You got a sense of what it's like to be a driver. It was reality and fantasy television all in one."
The only person hired so far for next year as an on-air personality is driver Darrell Waltrip. He will retire at the conclusion of the season, then step into Fox's broadcast booth during the 2001 season.
Few, if any, of the current television personalities have been contacted by the new networks. Many know once the checkered flag waves in Atlanta on Nov. 21 to signal the end of the season, they never again will work in the fast lane.